Beirut explosion: Lebanon is mourning the victims of the most powerful blast to hit a country already being crushed by an economic crisis, as rescuers search for those missing since the explosion that flattened Beirut port and devastated the city.
French President Emmanuel Macron, making the first visit by a foreign leader since Tuesday’s blast, was due to arrive in Beirut later on Thursday along with specialist rescue personnel and equipment.
The blast killed at least 137 people and injured 5000, with officials expecting the death toll to rise.
Dozens are missing and up to a quarter of a million people were left without homes fit to live in after shockwaves smashed building facades, sucked furniture out into streets and shattered windows many kilometres inland.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab declared three days of mourning from Thursday for victims of the explosion in a city that is still scarred by civil war three decades ago and reeling from a financial meltdown and surge in coronavirus cases.
Officials have blamed the disaster on a huge stockpile of highly explosive ammonium nitrate held for years at the port in unsafe conditions. The government has ordered port officials to be put under house arrest, ministerial sources told Reuters.
But Lebanese, who have lost jobs and watched savings evaporate in the financial crisis, blamed politicians who have overseen and benefited from decades of state corruption and bad governance.
“They will scapegoat somebody to defer responsibility,” said Rabee Azar, a 33-year-old construction worker who came to the port on Thursday morning to try to start repairs. “This explosion was the final bullet to kill off the country.”
“Nothing will come of the investigation. Nobody will believe them,” said Azar, speaking near the smashed remains of a grain silo where tonnes of wheat was scattered on the ground.
President Michel Aoun said 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilisers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port after it was seized from an unseaworthy ship. He promised a thorough investigation and to hold those responsible to account.
An official source familiar with preliminary investigations blamed the incident on “inaction and negligence”, saying “nothing was done” to remove hazardous material.
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 an attack.
A Lebanese security source said the initial blaze that sparked the explosion was caused by welding work.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said the US government had not ruled out the possibility that Tuesday’s explosion was an attack and was still gathering intelligence.
Health officials reported that hospitals were running out of beds and equipment to attend to the injured.
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 be diverted to smaller ports.
The World Bank said it would work with Lebanon’s partners to mobilise public and private financing for reconstruction and recovery.