France’s Macron announces fundraising conference for Lebanon

Lebanese officials targeted in the investigation into 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 explosion Tuesday, which appeared to have been caused by an accidental fire that ignited a stockpile of ammonium nitrate at the port, rippled across the Lebanese capital, killing at least 135 people, injuring more than 5,000 and causing widespread destruction. In addition to Lebanese natives, the dead have included Canadian and American citizens, as well as a German diplomat.

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, including from Canada. Switzerland confirmed it has sent a team of specialists including engineers and logistics experts at Lebanon’s request, while Britain is sending a Royal Navy ship to help with clean-up and reconstruction efforts at the port.

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.”

A Lebanese youth hugs French President Emmanuel Macron during his visit to the Gemmayzeh neighbourhood, which has suffered extensive damage due to Tuesday’s massive explosion. (AFP/Getty Images)

He said France will work to co-ordinate aid, but warned that “if reforms are not made, Lebanon will continue to sink.”

Later, as he toured one of the hardest-hit neighbourhoods, an angry crowd vented its fury at Lebanon’s political leaders, chanting “Revolution” and, “The people want to bring down the regime,” slogans used during mass protests last year.

Macron said he was not there to endorse the “regime” and vowed that French aid would not fall into the “hands of corruption.”

Macron said France will organize an international fundraising conference with European, American, Middle Eastern and other donors to raise money for food, medicine, housing and other urgent aid.

He promised “clear and transparent governance” so that the aid goes directly to the population and aid groups.

WATCH l CBC News contributor Rebecca Collard describes volunteer efforts on the ground:

As volunteers try to clean up the rubble from the explosion in Beirut, the question becomes how does Lebanon — a country already in a financial crisis — recover. 1:31

Losses from the blast are estimated to be between $10 billion and $15 billion US, Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud told the Saudi-owned TV station Al-Hadath on Wednesday, noting 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.

Virus mitigation a secondary concern

The investigation into the explosion is focused on how 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical used in fertilizers, came to be stored at the port facility for six years, and why nothing was done about it.

The cargo had been stored at the port since it was confiscated from a ship years earlier. Based on the timeline and the size of the cargo, that ship could be the MV Rhosus. The ship was initially seized in Beirut in 2013 when it entered the port due to technical problems, according to lawyers involved in the case. It came from the nation of Georgia, and had been bound for Mozambique.

The site of Tuesday’s blast in Beirut’s port area is seen Thursday during Macron’s visit. (Aziz Taher/Reuters)

The stockpile is believed to have detonated after a fire broke out nearby in what appeared to be a warehouse holding fireworks. Daher, the customs official, said he did not know if there were fireworks near the site.

Another theory is that the fire began when welders were trying to repair a broken gate and a hole in the wall of hangar 12, where the explosive material was stored. Local news reports say the repair work was ordered by security forces who investigated the facility and were concerned about theft.

Anger is mounting against the various political factions, including the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group, that have ruled the country since the 1975-1990 civil war. The country’s long-serving politicians are widely seen as being hopelessly corrupt and incapable of providing even basic services like electricity and trash collection.

The Mediterranean country was already on the brink of collapse, with soaring unemployment and a financial crisis that has wiped out people’s life savings. Hospitals were already strained by the coronavirus pandemic, and one was so badly damaged by the blast it had to treat patients in a nearby field.

Dr. Firas Abiad, director general of Rafik Hariri University Hospital, the public hospital leading the coronavirus fight, said he expects an increase in cases in the next 10 to 15 days linked to crowding at hospitals and blood donation centres after the blast.

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows a capsized ship at the port of Beirut. The massive explosion left entire city blocks blanketed with glass and rubble. (Mazar Technologies/The Associated Press)

Authorities had largely contained the outbreak by imposing a sweeping lockdown in March and April, but case numbers have risen in recent weeks. A renewed lockdown was to go into effect this week but those plans were cancelled after the explosion. The country has reported more than 5,400 coronavirus cases and 68 deaths since February.

“There is no doubt that our immunity in the country is less than before the explosion and this will affect us medium- to long-term,” Abiad said. “We desperately need aid, not only us but all hospitals in Lebanon.”

The explosion was the most powerful blast ever seen in the city. Several city blocks were left littered with rubble, broken glass and damaged vehicles.

Authorities have cordoned off the port itself, where the blast left a crater 200 metres across and shredded a large grain silo, emptying its contents into the rubble. Estimates suggested about 85 per cent of the country’s grain was stored there.

WATCH | Lebanese Canadians, charities looking to help after Beirut explosion:

Lebanese Canadians with family or other connections to Beirut are looking for ways to help as they await word from loved ones. Meanwhile, charities are trying to get food into the city, which had its major grain source destroyed. 2:01

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