France’s Macron checks in as aid response for Beirut starts
French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in the Lebanese capital Thursday as part of the international response to a massive explosion that killed scores of people and gutted parts of the Mediterranean port city this week.
Macron, who pledged to spearhead an international aid effort for Lebanon, is the first world leader to visit Beirut in the aftermath of the blast that engulfed its commercial centre Tuesday, eviscerated its port and killed at least 135 people.
More than 5,000 residents were wounded, and dozens more remaining missing, officials said.
The immediate cause of the explosion, which sent a towering plume of red smoke into the sky, appeared to be an estimated 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer that can also be used to make bombs.
It was stored in a warehouse at the port for years despite repeated warnings about the risk it posed.
Shocked and angry residents turned their ire toward Lebanese officials who they say have spent decades gutting public services and profiting from smuggling operations at the port.
The disaster appeared to reflect those same hallmarks: a weak state, inept government and corrupt political class.
France has a close relationship with its former protectorate. And as Macron toured devastated neighborhoods Thursday, including the historic Gemmayze quarter in East Beirut, furious crowds surrounded the French leader to denounce Lebanon’s government.
“How do you know if you give money to them, they won’t steal it?” one man shouted at Macron, referring to Lebanon’s political elite.
“You’re protecting thugs,” another said as Macron pleaded with the crowd.
“Do you trust me?” the French leader said, according to footage broadcast on Lebanese television.
“I want this aid to directly reach the Lebanese people,” he continued. “We all felt the pain when the port exploded.”
Earlier, Macron had urged Lebanese officials to carry out reforms that would allow the smooth delivery of financial and other aid.
“If reforms are not made, Lebanon will continue to suffer,” Macron said shortly after his arrival, according to the state-owned news network, France24.
Losses from the blast are estimated to be between $10 billion and $15 billion, Beirut’s governor, Marwan Abboud, told a Saudi-owned television station, the Associated Press reported.
Lebanon’s economy had already imploded in the months before the blasts, pushing hundreds of thousands of Lebanese toward or deeper below the poverty line.
The blasts also destroyed Lebanon’s main grain silo near the explosive-packed warehouse, leaving the country with less than one month’s reserves of grain, according to the government.
“Families will immediately feel the shortage in basic needs as a result of this tragedy,” said Jad Sakr, Lebanon country director for the Save the Children charity.
“Our worst fears have been confirmed. A member of the embassy in Beirut was killed by the explosion in her apartment,” he said in a statement.
“The entire staff of the Foreign Office deeply mourns our colleague.” - Agencies