7 Aug 2020

Macron visits Beirut as residents rage at their leaders

12:31 pm on 7 August 2020

People in Beirut have expressed anger at the government over what they say was negligence that led to Wednesday's huge explosion.

An injured Lebanese anti-government protester reacts as members of the security forces stand guardin the Gemayzeh neighbourhood during the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron on August 6, 2020, two days after a massive explosion in the Beirut port shook the capital.

An injured Lebanese anti-government protester in Beirut reacts as members of the security forces stand guard during the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron. Photo: AFP

President Michel Aoun said the blast was caused by 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored unsafely in a warehouse.

Many have accused the authorities of corruption, neglect and mismanagement.

Lebanese authorities have arrested 16 people in an investigation into the Beirut port warehouse explosion, state news agency NNA said on Thursday, and a judicial source and local media said the port's general manager was among those being held.

NNA did not name the individuals, but quoted Judge Fadi Akiki, a government representative at the military court, as saying authorities had so far questioned more than 18 port and customs officials and others involved in maintenance work at the warehouse.

"Sixteen people have been taken into custody as part of the investigation," NNA quoted Akiki as saying. He said the investigation was continuing.

A judicial source and two local broadcasters said Beirut Port General Manager Hassan Koraytem was among those held. Earlier, the central bank said it froze the accounts of seven people including Koraytem and the head of Lebanese customs

Koraytem told OTV they had been aware that the material was dangerous when a court first ordered it stored in the warehouse, "but not to this degree".

The blast killed at least 137 people and injured about 5000 others, while dozens are still missing. A two-week state of emergency has begun.

French architect Jean-Marc Bonfils, involved in rebuilding the city after the civil war, and firefighter Sahar Fares, one of the first responders at the scene, were among the first fatalities to be named. A German diplomat was also among the dead.

French President Emmanuel Macron - the first world leader to visit since the tragedy - was mobbed as he walked through the city today, with residents imploring him to help and denouncing their leaders.

"Help us, you are our only hope," one resident called out. "Please don't give money to our corrupt government," said another, before adding: "We can't take this any more."

A Lebanese youth hugs French President Emmanuel Macron during a visit to the Gemmayzeh neighborhood, which has suffered extensive damage due to a massive explosion in the Lebanese capital, on August 6, 2020. - French President Emmanuel Macron visited shell-shocked Beirut,

French President Emmanuel Macron hugs a resident during his visit to Beirut. Photo: AFP

At a press conference, Macron said a new political order was needed in Lebanon. "The anger I saw in Beirut today also showed signs of hope for the future," he said.

An aid conference for Lebanon would be announced in the coming days, he said. France would organise aid along with the European Union and the World Bank and would make sure it was sent directly to relief organisations working on the ground.

Funding was available, he said, but political reforms had to take place before it could be sent.

He vowed that there would be no blank cheques for Lebanon's leaders, but cautioned that he could not tell the Lebanese government what to do. France is the former colonial power in Lebanon.

He also called for an international investigation into the explosion "to prevent things from remaining hidden and doubt from creeping in", he said.

An audit of Lebanon's central bank was also needed - "If there is no audit of the central bank, in a few months there will be no more imports and then there will be a lack of fuel and of food," Macron said.

Filmmaker Jude Chehab told the BBC: "Beirut is crying, Beirut is screaming, people are hysterical and people are tired."

Chadia Elmeouchi Noun, a resident currently in hospital, said: "I've known all the time that we are led by incompetent people, incompetent government... But I tell you something - what they have done now is absolutely criminal."

Yesterday, the government announced that a number of port officials were placed under house arrest pending an investigation into the explosion.

The country's Supreme Defence Council insisted that those found responsible would face the "maximum punishment".

Meanwhile, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have called for an independent investigation into the blast. In a statement, HRW said it had "serious concerns about the ability of the Lebanese judiciary to conduct a credible and transparent investigation on its own".

A handout picture provided by the Lebanese photo agency Dalati and Nohra on August 6, 2020, shows French President Emmanuel Macron (2nd-R) and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (R) inspecting the damages at the port of Lebanon's capital Beirut.

Syrian officials accompany Emmanuel Macon, centre, on a tour of the devastated port area in Beirut. Photo: AFP

Pleas to move ammonium nitrate ignored

The ammonium nitrate - which is used as a fertiliser and as an explosive - had been in a warehouse in the port for six years after it was unloaded from a ship impounded in 2013.

The head of the port and the head of the customs authority said that they had written to the judiciary several times asking that the chemical be exported or sold on to ensure port safety.

House arrest would apply for all port officials "who have handled the affairs of storing [the] ammonium nitrate, guarding it and handling its paperwork" since June 2014, said Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad.

The ammonium nitrate arrived on a Moldovan-flagged ship, the Rhosus, which entered Beirut port after suffering technical problems during its voyage from Georgia to Mozambique, according to Shiparrested.com, which deals with shipping-related legal cases.

The Rhosus was inspected, banned from leaving and was shortly afterwards abandoned by its owners, sparking several legal claims. Its cargo was stored in a port warehouse for safety reasons, the report said.

Hopes linger for finding survivors

A French rescue team working in the city said there was still a good chance of finding survivors, two days after the explosion.

One unnamed rescuer told Macron that they hoped to find a group of seven or eight people believed to be trapped in a "control room" under the rubble.

Security forces have sealed off a wide area around the blast site.

Flights carrying medical aid, rescuers and mobile clinics have been arriving from France and other countries since Wednesday. The UK is sending up to £5 million ($NZ10.7m) in medical aid, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said.

Members of the Lebanese civil defence look on as French rescuers use a dog to search for victims and survivors amidst the rubble of a building in the Gemayzeh neighbourhood on August 6, 2020, two days after a massive explosion in the Beirut port shook the capital.

Members of the Lebanese civil defence look on as French rescuers use a dog to search for victims and survivors amidst the rubble of a building in the Gemayzeh neighbourhood. Photo: AFP

Public Health Minister Hamad Hassan said Lebanon's health sector was short of beds and lacked the equipment necessary to treat the injured and care for patients in critical condition.

As many as 300,000 people have been left homeless by the blast, said Beirut's governor Marwan Aboud.

He told the BBC: "Beirut needs food, Beirut needs clothes, houses, materials to rebuild houses. Beirut needs a place for the refugees, for its people."

Economy Minister Raoul Nehme meanwhile said the country would have to rely at least partly on foreign aid to rebuild.

"We're not swimming in dollars," he told Sky News Arabia.

Covid-19 already stressing health system

The explosion comes at a sensitive time for Lebanon. With Covid-19 infections on the rise, hospitals were already struggling to cope. Now, they are faced with treating thousands of injured people.

The country is also going through the worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, and tensions were already high with street demonstrations against the government. People have to deal with daily power cuts, a lack of safe drinking water and limited public healthcare.

Lebanon imports most of its food and large quantities of grain stored in the port have been destroyed causing fears of widespread food insecurity to come. The future of the port itself is in doubt.

The impact of the blast on the economy is expected to be long-lasting.

The explosion happened close to the scene of a huge car bombing which killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. A verdict in the trial of four men accused of orchestrating the attack was due tomorrow at a special court in the Netherlands, but this has been postponed until 18 August out of respect for the victims of Tuesday's blast.

- BBC / Reuters

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs