French President Emmanuel Macron yesterday visited shell-shocked Beirut, pledging support and urging change after a massive explosion devastated the Lebanese capital in a disaster that has sparked grief and fury.
“Lebanon is not alone,” Macron wrote on Twitter on arrival, before pledging that Paris would coordinate international relief efforts after the colossal blast killed at least 137 people, wounded thousands and caused massive damage.
However, Macron also warned that Lebanon — which is already mired in a deep economic crisis, in desperate need of a bailout and torn by political turmoil — would “continue to sink” unless it swiftly implements reforms.
Macron visited Beirut’s harborside blast zone, now a wasteland of blackened ruins, rubble and charred debris where a 140m-wide crater has filled with seawater.
Macron’s visit to the small Mediterranean country, France’s Middle East protege and former colonial-era protectorate, was the first by a foreign head of state since Tuesday’s explosion.
Two days on, Lebanon was still reeling from a blast so huge it was felt in neighboring countries, its mushroom-shaped cloud drawing comparisons with the Hiroshima atom bomb.
Offering a glimmer of hope amid the carnage, a French rescuer said there was a “good chance of finding ... people alive,” especially a group believed to be trapped in a room under the rubble.
“We are looking for seven or eight missing people, who could be stuck in a control room buried by the explosion,” the colonel leading a rescue team told Macron as he surveyed the site.
According to several officials, the explosion was caused by a fire igniting 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertilizer stored for years in a ramshackle portside warehouse.
Photo: AFP / HO / Dalato and Nohra
Even as they counted their dead and cleaned up the streets, many Lebanese were boiling with anger over a blast they see as the most shocking expression yet of their leadership’s incompetence.
“We can’t bear more than this. This is it. The whole system has got to go,” 30-year-old Mohammed Suyur said as he picked up broken glass in Mar Mikhael, one of the worst-hit city districts.
Questions were being asked as to how such a huge cargo of highly explosive material could have been left unsecured in Beirut for years.
Photos: AFP / UGC / Gaby Salem / ESN
Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Hassan Diab have promised to put the culprits behind bars, but trust in institutions is low and few on Beirut’s streets held out hope for an impartial inquiry.
“Lebanon’s political class should be on guard in the weeks ahead,” Faysal Itani, a deputy director at think tank the Center for Global Policy, wrote in the New York Times.
“Shock will inevitably turn to anger,” Itani wrote.
Human Rights Watch supported calls for an international probe.
“An independent investigation with international experts is the best guarantee that victims of the explosion will get the justice they deserve,” the group said.
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