BEIRUT • Lebanon mourned the victims of the most powerful blast to hit the country that was already being crushed by an economic crisis, as rescuers continued searching yesterday for those missing since the explosion that flattened Beirut port and devastated the city.
Anger is growing in the city over the government’s slow response to the disaster, amid accusations of its failure to prevent the explosion even though the threat from a huge stockpile of chemicals at the port was reportedly known for years.
French President Emmanuel Macron, making the first visit by a foreign leader since Tuesday’s blast which killed at least 145 people and injured 5,000, arrived in Beirut yesterday along with specialist rescue personnel and equipment.
Mr Macron told angry crowds in central Beirut that he wanted to lead a global response and would seek a new deal with the political authorities. He toured the city’s shattered streets with crowds demanding the end to a “regime” of politicians they blame for corruption and dragging Lebanon, a former French colony, into disaster.
“I see the emotion on your face, the sadness, the pain. This is why I’m here,” he told one group, shaking their hands on roads strewn with rubble and flanked by shops with windows blown out.
Mr Macron, wearing a black tie in mourning and flanked by security guards, promised to send more medical and other aid to Lebanon, while those around him chanted “Revolution” and “The people want the fall of the regime”.
“But what is also needed here is political change. This explosion should be the start of a new era,” Mr Macron added.
Other nations have also sent in search and rescue teams and medical aid and equipment. Dozens of people remain missing and up to a quarter of a million people are left homeless after shockwaves from the blast smashed building facades, sucked furniture out into streets and shattered windows far inland.
Officials expect the death toll to rise.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab yesterday declared three days of mourning for victims of the explosion, the most devastating ever to hit the city that is still scarred by a civil war from three decades ago and reeling from a surge in coronavirus cases.
Economy Minister Raoul Nehme said Lebanon, with its banking system in crisis, a collapsing currency and one of the world’s biggest debt burdens, had “very limited” resources to deal with the disaster, which by some estimates could cost US$15 billion (S$20.6 billion).
President Michel Aoun blamed the blast on 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilisers and bombs, that had been stored for six years at the port after it was seized. He promised to investigate and hold those responsible to account. The government has also ordered port officials to be put under house arrest, ministerial sources told Reuters.
But ordinary Lebanese, who have lost jobs and watched their savings evaporate in the financial crisis, blamed politicians in charge during decades of state corruption and bad governance.
“Our leaders are crooks and liars. I don’t believe any investigation they will do. They destroyed the country and they’re still lying to the people. Who are they kidding?” said retired port worker Jean Abi Hanna, 80, whose home was damaged and daughter and granddaughter injured in the blast.
An official source familiar with preliminary investigations blamed the incident on “inaction and negligence”, saying “nothing was done” to remove hazardous material.
The government has given an investigative committee four days to determine responsibility for the disaster, Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe told French radio yesterday.
People who felt the explosive force said they had witnessed nothing comparable in years of conflict and upheaval in Beirut, which was devastated by the 1975-1990 civil war and since then has experienced big bomb attacks, unrest and a war with Israel. “First we heard one sound. Seconds later there was a big explosion. All hell broke loose,” said Mr Ibrahim Zoobi, who works near the port. “I saw people thrown five or six metres.”
Health officials reported that hospitals were running out of beds and equipment to attend to the injured.
Operations have been paralysed at Beirut port, Lebanon’s main route for imports needed to feed a nation of more than six million people, forcing ships to be diverted to smaller ports.
Countries have dispatched emergency medical aid, field hospitals, rescue experts and tracking dogs.
Gulf states were among the first to respond, with Qatar sending mobile hospitals to ease pressure on Lebanon’s already strained medical system.
Kuwait also sent medical supplies, while a Greek C-130 army transport plane bearing a dozen rescuers had also landed.
The authorities in the Netherlands, Czech Republic and Poland offered an array of assistance including doctors, police and firefighters, together with rescue experts and sniffer dogs.
Neighbouring Israel offered humanitarian aid – to a country with which it is still technically at war – via international intermediaries.
The World Bank said on Wednesday that it would work with Lebanon’s partners to mobilise public and private financing for reconstruction and recovery.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESS, XINHUA