BEIRUT • The President of Lebanon said yesterday an investigation into the biggest blast in Beirut’s history would examine whether “external interference” had a role, as residents tried to rebuild their shattered lives and homes after the explosion.
The search for those missing intensified, as rescuers raced to find anyone still alive after Tuesday’s explosion that killed 154, smashed up a swathe of the city and sent shockwaves around the region.
“The cause has not been determined yet. There is a possibility of external interference through a rocket or bomb or other act,” President Michel Aoun said in comments carried by local media and confirmed by his office.
He said the government would also consider whether it was a result of negligence or an accident. He previously blamed negligence in the storage of highly explosive material for years at the port.
The United States has previously said it has not ruled out an attack.
Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, has also previously denied it had any role.
Security forces fired tear gas at a furious crowd in Beirut late on Thursday, as anger boiled over at the ruling elite, who have presided over a nation that faced economic collapse even before the deadly port blast injured over 5,000. The crowd, some hurling stones, marked a return to the kind of protests that had become a feature of life in Beirut, as Lebanese watched their savings evaporate while government decision-making floundered.
“There is no way we can rebuild this house. Where is the state?” asked Mr Tony Abdou, an unemployed 60-year-old. His family home is in Gemmayze, a district just a few hundred metres from the port warehouses where 2,750 tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate were stored for years, a ticking time bomb near a densely populated area. A security source and local media previously said the fire that caused the blast was ignited by warehouse welding work.
Volunteers swept up debris from the streets of Beirut, which still bears scars from the 1975-1990 civil war and has often witnessed bombings and other unrest since then.
“Do we actually have a government here?” said taxi driver Nassim Abiaad, 66, whose cab was crushed by falling building wreckage just as he was about to get into the vehicle. “There is no way to make money any more,” he added.
The government has promised a full investigation. State news agency NNA said 16 people were taken into custody. But for many Lebanese, the explosion was symptomatic of the years of neglect by the authorities while state corruption thrived.
Officials have said the blast might have caused losses amounting to US$15 billion (S$20.5 billion) – a bill the country cannot pay when it has already defaulted on its mountain of national debt, exceeding 150 per cent of economic output, and talks about a lifeline from the International Monetary Fund have stalled.
Hospitals, many heavily damaged, have been overwhelmed by the number of casualties.
In the port area, rescue teams set up lights to work through the night in a dash to find those still missing, as families waited tensely, many slowly losing hope. Some victims were hurled into the sea by the blast.
The weeping mother of one of the missing called a primetime TV programme on Thursday night to plead with the authorities to find her son, Joe. He was found dead hours later.
Lebanese Red Cross secretary general George Kettaneh told local radio VDL that three more bodies had been found in the search, while the health minister yesterday said the death toll had climbed to 154. Dozens are still unaccounted for.
Mr Charbel Abreeni, who trained port employees, showed Reuters pictures on his phone of killed colleagues. “I know 30 port employees who died, two of them were my close friends and a third is missing,” said the 62-year-old, whose home was wrecked in the blast. His shin was bandaged. “How can you survive here, the economy is zero?”
A pressing challenge for the government is ensuring the nation has enough food, after the blast destroyed the country’s only major grain silo. United Nations agencies were working to hand out food parcels and deliver medical supplies. Offers of aid have also poured in from Arab states, Western nations and beyond.
Less than 48 hours after the blast, President Emmanuel Macron of France on Thursday did what no senior Lebanese politician has: He came to see the suffering first hand.
“What is also needed here is political change,” he said. “This explosion should be the start of a new era.” Before leaving Lebanon, Mr Macron said he had presented Lebanese leaders with a list of urgent reforms that needed to be carried out to unlock billions of dollars in international funds.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE