Lebanon's leaders face rage, reform calls after blast disaster
Lebanese anti-government protesters gather in 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. The blast caused massive destruction and killed at least 113 people, heaping misery on a country in crisis.
AFP/
Lebanon's leaders face rage, reform calls after blast disaster
Valerie Leroux (Agence France-Presse) - August 7, 2020 - 7:57am

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Lebanon's embattled leadership, under fire after a massive explosion laid waste to large parts of central Beirut, faced public fury Thursday and stern calls to reform from the visiting French president and the IMF.

Grief has turned to anger in a traumatised nation where at least 149 people died and over 5,000 were injured in Tuesday's colossal explosion of a huge pile of ammonium nitrate that had languished for years in a port warehouse.

To many Lebanese, it was tragic proof of the rot at the core of their governing system which has failed to halt the deepest economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war that has plunged millions into poverty.

French President Emmanuel Macron, on a snap visit to shell-shocked Beirut, pledged to lead international emergency relief efforts and organise an aid conference in the coming days, promising that "Lebanon is not alone".

But he also warned that Lebanon -- already in desperate need of a multi-billion-dollar bailout and hit by political turmoil since October -- would "continue to sink" unless it implements urgent reforms.

Speaking of Lebanon's political leaders, Macron said "their responsibility is huge -- that of a revamped pact with the Lebanese people in the coming weeks, that of deep change".

The International Monetary Fund, whose talks with Lebanon started in May but have since stalled, warned that it was "essential to overcome the impasse in the discussions on critical reforms".

The IMF urged Lebanon -- which is seeking more than $20 billion in external funding and now faces billions more in disaster costs -- "to put in place a meaningful program to turn around the economy" following Tuesday's disaster.

'I understand your anger'

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 the unprecedented tragedy.

The French president visited Beirut's harbourside blast zone, a wasteland of blackened ruins, rubble and charred debris where a 140 metre (460 feet) wide crater has filled with sea water.

As he inspected a devastated pharmacy, crowds outside vented their fury at the country's "terrorist" leadership, shouting "revolution" and "the people want an end to the regime!".

Later Macron was thronged by survivors who pleaded with him to help get rid of their reviled ruling elite.

Under the nervous gaze of his suited bodyguards, Macron gave one woman a prolonged embrace triggering wild cheers from the crowd.

"I understand your anger. I am not here to endorse... the regime," Macron assured the crowd. "It is my duty to help you as a people, to bring you medicine and food."

Another woman implored Macron to keep French financial aid out of the reach of Lebanese officials, accused by many of their people of rampant graft and greed.

"I guarantee you that this aid will not fall into corrupt hands," the president pledged.

'System has to go'

Compounding the woes, Lebanon recorded 255 coronavirus cases Thursday -- its highest single-day infection tally -- after the blast upended a planned lockdown and sent thousands streaming into overflowing hospitals.

The disaster death toll rose from 137 to 149 on Thursday evening, the health ministry said, and was expected to further rise as rescue workers kept digging through the rubble.

Offering a glimmer of hope amid the carnage, a French rescuer said there was a "good chance of finding... people alive", telling Macron seven or eight missing people could be stuck in a room buried under the rubble.

Even as they counted their dead, many Lebanese were consumed with anger over the 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," said 30-year-old Mohammad Suyur.

A flood of angry posts on social media suggested the disaster could reignite a cross-sectarian protest movement that erupted in October but faded amid the grinding economic hardship and the coronavirus pandemic.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab and President Michel Aoun have promised to put the culprits responsible for the disaster behind bars.

And late Thursday a military prosecutor announced 16 port staff had been detained over the blast.

But trust in institutions is low and few on Beirut's streets held out hope for an impartial inquiry.

Macron told reporters that "an international, open and transparent probe is needed to prevent things from remaining hidden and doubt from creeping in".

Amid the gloom and fury, the aftermath of the terrible explosion has also yielded countless uplifting examples of spontaneous solidarity.

Business owners swiftly took to social media, posting offers to repair doors, paint damaged walls or replace shattered windows for free.

Lebanon's diaspora, believed to be nearly three times the tiny country's population of five million, has rushed to launch fundraisers and wire money to loved ones.

In Beirut, much of the cleanup has been handled by volunteers.

"We're sending people into the damaged homes of the elderly and handicapped to help them find a home for tonight," said Husam Abu Nasr, a 30-year-old volunteer.

"We don't have a state to take these steps, so we took matters into our own hands." 

EXPLOSION LEBANON
As It Happens
LATEST UPDATE: September 2, 2020 - 7:14am

The powerful explosions that rocked the port of Beirut on Tuesday left "people dead and injured", the Lebanon's National News Agency reports

Georges Kettaneh, the president of the Lebanese Red Cross, referrs to "hundreds of wounded" in a statement on Lebanese LBC television, adding: "We are overwhelmed by phone calls."

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hasan Diab has declared Wednesday a day of mourning, and President Michel Aoun called for "urgent" defence council talks. — AFP

September 2, 2020 - 7:14am

Lebanese leaders have promised to form a new government within two weeks, visiting French president Emmanuel Macron said Tuesday after talks with political blocs who designated a new prime minister a day earlier. 

"What I have asked for, what all political parties without exception have committed to this evening right here, is that the formation of this government will not take more than 15 days," Macron said in a speech.

He said the cabinet would be comprised of "competent personalities" and would be an "independent" entity with the backing of political parties. — AFP

August 14, 2020 - 7:39am

UN human rights experts on Thursday demanded a swift, independent investigation into the catastrophic Beirut explosion, citing deep concern about irresponsibility and impunity in Lebanon.

The group also called for a relatively-rare special debate at the United Nations Human Rights Council this September.

UN experts do not speak for the United Nations but report their findings to it. — AFP

August 13, 2020 - 7:43am

The massive blast at Beirut port on August 4 caused more than $15 billion in damages, Lebanese President Michel Aoun says.

"Preliminary estimates of the losses suffered following the port explosion top 15 billion dollars," he was quoted as telling Spain's King Felipe in a phone call, in a message on the presidency's Twitter account. — AFP

August 12, 2020 - 7:34am

The death toll from Beirut's massive August 4 explosion has climbed to 171, a health ministry spokesman told AFP on Tuesday.

The new figure, up from 160, came exactly one week since the mega-blast ravaged swathes of the Lebanese capital, wounding more than 6,000 and temporarily displacing 300,000 people from their homes. — AFP

August 11, 2020 - 9:45am

Lebanon's premier Hassan Diab stepped down Monday amid fury within and outside his government over the deadly Beirut port blast he blamed on the incompetence and corruption of a decades-old ruling class.

"Today we are heeding the people and their demands to hold accountable those responsible for a disaster that has been concealed for seven years" he said in a televised address, blaming a "corrupt" political elite for the August 4 explosion.

"This is why today I announce the resignation of the government." — AFP

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