Angry crowds in Beirut have urged Emmanuel Macron to help bring political change to Lebanon as the French president toured the city’s blasted port and the shattered surrounding neighbourhoods.
As the Lebanese army took control of the site on the first day of a two-week state of emergency, there were growing calls inside and outside the country for an independent probe into the disaster that has killed at least 157 people, left thousands homeless and caused up to $15bn (£11bn) worth of damage to the capital.
Beirut ( bay-ROOT; Arabic: بيروت, romanized: Bayrūt; French: Beyrouth, pronounced [bɛʁut]) is the capital and largest city of Lebanon. No recent population census has been conducted, but 2007 estimates ranged from slightly more than 1 million to 2.2 million as part of Greater Beirut, which makes it the third-largest city in the Levant region and the fifteenth-largest in the Arab world. On a peninsula at the midpoint of Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast, Beirut is an important regional seaport.
It is one of the oldest cities in the world, having been inhabited for more than 5,000 years. The first historical mention of Beirut is found in the Amarna letters from the New Kingdom of Egypt, which date to the 15th century BC.
Beirut is Lebanon’s seat of government and plays a central role in the Lebanese economy, with most banks and corporations based in its Central District, Badaro, Rue Verdun, Hamra, Ryad el Soleh street, and Achrafieh. Following the destructive Lebanese Civil War, Beirut’s cultural landscape underwent major reconstruction. Identified and graded for accountancy, advertising, banking, finance and law, Beirut is ranked as a Beta World City by the Globalization and World Cities Research Network.
Beirut explosion: protesters demand political change as Macron …
More bodies are expected to be retrieved in ongoing search and rescue operations in and around the port, where a stash of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate is thought to have ignited shortly after 6pm on Tuesday, sparking the largest explosion in Beirut’s history.
As volunteers worked to clean up damaged streets, buildings and hospitals, there was growing rage across Lebanon at how the disaster was allowed to occur.
Beirut explosion: protesters demand political change as Macron …
Macron was surrounded by hundreds of people as he toured the wrecked Gemmayze neighbourhood near the port who called for revolution and the downfall of Lebanon’s “regime”.
“I guarantee you this – aid will not go to corrupt hands,” Macron told the protesters. “I will talk to all political forces to ask them for a new pact. I am here today to propose a new political pact to them,” he said.
Footage showed members of the crowd urging Macron to “help us” and “do something”. “I see the emotion on your face, the sadness, the pain. This is why I’m here,” he told one group.
Few Lebanese leaders have ventured out to see the site or tour affected neighbourhoods since the blast and the convoy of former prime minister Saad Hariri was attacked on Tuesday as he drove through downtown Beirut.
Lebanese officials have started blaming each other for leaving the highly explosive substance sitting so close to residential neighbourhoods for six years. The ammonium nitrate was taken from a ship that docked in Beirut in 2013 and was apparently abandoned by its Russian owner and mostly Ukrainian crew.
Badri Daher, the director general of Lebanese customs, said on Wednesday his office had sent six letters to the country’s judiciary urging them to deal with the chemicals either by exporting the load, reselling it or giving it to the army.
An unspecified number of port officials have been ordered to be placed under house arrest pending the investigation, which is scheduled to take four more days. It will report to the national cabinet, which will refer its findings to the judiciary.
Amnesty International was among the organisations calling for an independent investigation into the circumstances leading up to the explosion.
“Whatever may have caused the explosion, including the possibility of a large amount of ammonium nitrate stored unsafely, Amnesty is calling for an international mechanism to be promptly set up to investigate how this happened,” said Julie Verhaar, the group’s acting secretary general.
Petitions circulating online calling for an international probe received thousands of signatures. A leading Druze politician, Walid Jumblatt, said he had no faith in the government’s ability to find and reveal the truth.
“We have no trust at all in this ruling gang,” said Jumblatt, whose party has lawmakers in parliament but is not in the cabinet, which took office in January with backing from the Hezbollah movement and its allies.
Protests were planned for central Beirut on Thursday afternoon as residents of the capital seethed at a disaster that appears to have been foreseeable and frequently warned about.
Macron said on Thursday his visit was “an opportunity to have a frank and challenging dialogue with the Lebanese political powers and institutions”. He said France would work to coordinate international aid but warned that “if reforms are not made, Lebanon will continue to sink”.
On one shattered balcony, someone had put up a thin noose along with a sign a reading: “Whose heads will be hung?” Lebanese social media was trending with the hashtag “Hang up the nooses”, as rage threatened to boil over in the grief-stricken city.
Lebanon last year witnessed a civil uprising against the country’s political system, which divides power and its spoils among 18 recognised sectarian groups in a form that has kept the peace since the country’s civil war but which critics say encourages corruption and entrenches a few ruling dynasties.
The protests managed to unseat Hariri as prime minister but did little to change the underlying political structure. Since then the country’s economic has also collapsed, leaving half the Lebanese population in poverty and the savings of most wiped out by a free-falling currency.
The explosion on Tuesday echoed another blast 15 years ago in which the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri was killed by a car bomb not far from the port. An international court trying four men accused of Hariri’s assassination and of killing 21 others with him was supposed to give its long-awaited verdict on Friday.
But the court outside The Hague said it was delaying the announcement “out of respect for the countless victims of the devastating explosion that shook Beirut on 4 August, and the three days of public mourning in Lebanon”, its registry said in a statement.