Lebanon probes blast amid rising anger, calls for change

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French President Emmanuel Macron (C), surrounded by Lebanese servicemen, visits the devastated site of the explosion at the port of Beirut, on August 6, 2020 two days after a massive explosion devastated the Lebanese capital in a disaster that has sparked grief and fury. - French President Emmanuel Macron visited shell-shocked Beirut on August 6, pledging support and urging change after a massive explosion devastated the Lebanese capital in a disaster that left 300,000 people homeless. (Photo by Thibault Camus / POOL / AFP)

AP

Beirut

Lebanese officials targeted in the investigation of the massive blast that tore through Beirut sought to shift blame for the presence of explosives at the city’s port, and the visiting French President warned Thursday that without serious reforms the country would “continue to sink.”

The blast on Tuesday, which appeared to have been caused by an accidental fire that ignited a warehouse full of ammonium nitrate at the city’s port, rippled across the Lebanese capital, killing at least 135 people, injuring more than 5,000 and causing widespread destruction.

It also may have accelerated the country’s coronavirus outbreak, as thousands flooded into hospitals in the wake of the blast.

Tens of thousands have been forced to move in with relatives and friends after their homes were damaged, further raising the risks of exposure.

French President Emmanuel Macron visited Thursday amid widespread pledges of international aid. But Lebanon, which was already mired in a severe economic crisis, faces a daunting challenge in rebuilding. It’s unclear how much support the international community will offer the notoriously corrupt and dysfunctional government.

Macron, who viewed the devastated port and was to meet with senior Lebanese officials, said the visit is “an opportunity to have a frank and challenging dialogue with the Lebanese political powers and institutions.”

He said France will work to coordinate aid but warned that “if reforms are not made, Lebanon will continue to sink.” Losses from the blast are estimated to be between USD 10 billion to USD 15 billion, Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud told the Saudi-owned TV station Al-Hadath on Wednesday, adding that nearly 300,000 people are homeless.

The head of Lebanon’s customs department meanwhile confirmed in an interview with LBC TV late Wednesday that officials had sent five or six letters over the years to the judiciary asking that the ammonium nitrate be removed because of the dangers it posed.

But Badri Daher said all he could do was alert authorities to the presence of dangerous materials, saying even that was “extra work” for him and his predecessor. He said the port authority was responsible for the material, while his job was to prevent smuggling and collect duties.

The judiciary and the port authority could not immediately be reached for comment. The government said Wednesday that an investigation was underway and that port officials have been placed under house
arrest.