Lebanon’s leading Druze politician Walid Jumblatt called on Thursday for an international investigation into the Beirut port explosion and said he had “no trust” in the government to find out the truth about it.
“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.
If not for the help of foreign states and the Arab region, “Lebanon would disappear”, he said, calling for “a government of neutrality.”
French President Emmanuel Macron called for urgent support for Lebanon where he arrived on Thursday, two days after a devastating blast ripped through Beirut, killing 145 people and generating a seismic shock that was felt across the region.
Dozens are still missing after Tuesday’s blast at the port that injured 5,000 people and left up to a quarter of a million without homes fit to live in, hammering a nation already reeling from economic meltdown and a surge in coronavirus cases.
A security source said the death toll had reached 145, and officials said the figure was likely to rise. Macron, making the first visit by a foreign leader since the explosion, promised to help organise international aid for Lebanon but said its government must implement economic reforms and crack down on corruption.
“If these reforms are not made, Lebanon will continue to suffer,” Macron said after being met by his Lebanese counterpart Michel Aoun at Beirut airport. At the port, destroyed by Tuesday’s giant mushroom cloud and fireball, families gathered seeking news about the missing, amid public anger at the authorities for allowing highly explosive material to be stored there for years in unsafe conditions.
“They will scapegoat somebody to defer responsibility,” said Rabee Azar, a 33-year-old construction worker, speaking near the smashed remains of the port’s grain silo, surrounded by other mangled masonry and flattened buildings.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab declared three days of mourning from Thursday after the most devastating explosion ever to hit the city that is still scarred by civil war three decades ago. With banks in crisis, a collapsing currency and one of the world’s biggest debt burdens, Economy Minister Raoul Nehme said Lebanon had “very limited” resources to deal with the disaster, which by some estimates may have cost the nation up to $15 billion. He said the country needed foreign aid.
Offers of medical and other immediate aid have poured in, as officials have said hospitals, some heavily damaged in the blast, do not have enough beds and equipment. But Lebanon was already struggling to secure longer term, economic support.
The government’s failure to tackle a runaway budget, mounting debt and endemic corruption has prompted Western donors to demand reform. Gulf Arab states who once helped Lebanon have baulked at bailing out a nation they say is increasingly influenced by their rival Iran.
Lebanon’s president blamed the explosion on 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilisers and bombs, that had been stored for six years at the port after it was seized. He promised to investigate and hold those responsible to account.
The government ordered some port officials to be put under house arrest. But ordinary Lebanese, who have lost jobs and watched savings evaporate in the financial crisis, blamed politicians in charge during decades of state corruption and bad governance.
“Our leaders are crooks and liars. I don’t believe any investigation they will do. They destroyed the country and they’re still lying to the people. Who are they kidding?” said Jean Abi Hanna, 80, a retired port worker whose home was damaged and daughter and granddaughter injured in the blast.
An official source familiar with preliminary investigations blamed the incident on “inaction and negligence”, saying “nothing was done” to remove hazardous material.
‘ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE’
Some local media reported sightings of drones or planes flying in the area shortly before the explosion and some Beirut residents said they saw missiles fired. But officials have denied the incident was the result of any attack.
A Lebanese security source said the initial blaze that sparked the explosion was caused by welding work. Veteran politician Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon’s Druze community, called for an international investigation, saying he had “no trust” in the government to find out the truth.
The White House said the U.S. government had still not ruled out the possibility that Tuesday’s explosion was an attack.
People who felt the explosive force said they had witnessed nothing comparable in years of conflict and upheaval in Beirut, which was devastated by the 1975-1990 civil war and since then has experienced big bomb attacks, unrest and a war with Israel.
“First we heard one sound. Seconds later there was a big explosion. All hell broke loose,” said Ibrahim Zoobi, who works near the port. “I saw people thrown five or six metres.” Seismic tremors from the blast were recorded in Eilat on Israel’s Red Sea coast, about 580 km (360 miles) away.
Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud told Al Hadath TV total losses from the blast could reach $15 billion, including losses to businesses amid the broader fallout. Operations have been paralysed at Beirut port, Lebanon’s main route for imports needed to feed a nation of more than 6 million people, forcing ships to divert to smaller ports.
The World Bank said it would work with Lebanon’s partners to mobilise financing for reconstruction. But it was unclear whether this would affect Lebanon’s difficult negotiations with the International Monetary Fund.
Lebanon’s central bank on Thursday instructed banks and financial institutions to extend exceptional dollar loans at zero interest to individuals and firms impacted by the Beirut port explosion that caused huge damage across the capital.
The explosion on Tuesday was the most powerful in years in Lebanon, which is already reeling from an economic meltdown that has seen the Lebanese pound weaken by nearly 80% since last year, due to a lack of dollars, from an official peg of 1,507.5 — a rate now only available for vital imports.
Banks have since October frozen people out of their own savings accounts and blocked transfers abroad. Under an April central bank circular, they now pay depositors with dollar accounts in cash in the local currency at a “market rate” well below that of the parallel market.
The central bank said the exceptional loans should be made, regardless of customer account limits, to individuals, private businesses, small and medium-sized enterprises and corporations — with the exception of real estate developers — to carry out essential repairs to homes and businesses.
The loans should carry no interest and be repaid over five years, it said, adding that they could be repaid in Lebanese pounds based on an interbank rate of 1,515 pounds to the dollar. The central bank would in turn provide dollar loans at zero interest to the banks and financial institutions granting the exceptional loans, it said.
The central bank, in a separate statement, also instructed money transfer houses to distribute transfers from abroad to Lebanon in dollars.
The economic crisis is rooted in decades of state corruption and waste. The government entered talks with the International Monetary Fund in May after defaulting on its foreign currency debt. But the talks have stalled in the absence of reforms and amid a row between the government, banks and politicians over the scale of the country’s vast financial losses.