Beirut: French President Emmanuel Macron visited shell-shocked Beirut on Thursday, pledging support and urging change after a massive explosion devastated the Lebanese capital in a disaster that has has sparked grief and fury.
"I see the emotion on your face, the sadness, the pain. This is why I'm here," he told one group, shaking their hands on roads strewn with rubble and flanked by shops with windows blown out after Tuesday's blast that killed 145 and injured 5,000.
Macron, wearing a black tie in mourning told angry Lebanese crowds in downtown Beirut that French aid would not go to "corrupt hands" and he would seek a new deal with political authorities.
"I guarantee you this - aid will not go to corrupt hands," Macron told protesters in central Beirut two days after the city was devastated by a blast.
"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, after being greeted by crowds calling for an end to the "regime".
"Lebanon is not alone," he tweeted on arrival before pledging Paris would coordinate international relief efforts after the colossal blast killed at least 137 people, wounded thousands and caused billions of dollars in damage.
Macron: "am not here to endorse the "regime'"
Macron also warned that Lebanon - already mired in a deep economic crisis, in desperate need of a bailout and torn by political turmoil - would "continue to sink" unless it implements urgent reforms.
Later, as he toured one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods, an angry crowd vented its fury at Lebanon's political leaders, chanting "Revolution'' and "The people want to bring down the regime," slogans used during mass protests last year.
He said France will work to coordinate aid but warned that "if reforms are not made, Lebanon will continue to sink.''
"But what is also needed here is political change. This explosion should be the start of a new era," Macron said, making the tour shortly after arriving on the first visit to Lebanon by a foreign leader since the blast.
The president has said he would deliver "home truths" to a government that France and other Western donors have said must reform the country's politics and the economy.
One man told Macron: "We hope this aid will go to the Lebanese people not the corrupt leaders."
Macron said he was not there to endorse the "regime'' and vowed that French aid would not fall into the "hands of corruption.''
Macron visited Beirut's harbourside blast zone, now a wasteland of blackened ruins, rubble and charred debris where a 140 metre (460 feet) wide crater has filled with sea water.
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 Tuesday's unprecedented tragedy.
Two days on, Lebanon was still reeling from a blast so huge it was felt in neighbouring countries, its mushroom-shaped cloud drawing comparisons with the Hiroshima atom bomb.
"Apocalypse", "Armageddon" - Lebanese were lost for words to describe the impact of the blast, which dwarfed anything the country had experienced in its violence-plagued history.
Offering a glimmer of hope amid the carnage, a French rescuer said there was a "good chance of finding... people alive", especially a group believed to be trapped in a room under the rubble.
"We are looking for seven or eight missing people, who could be stuck in a control room buried by the explosion," the colonel leading a rescue team told Macron as he surveyed the site.
'Shock to anger'
Paris has spearheaded international mobilisation in support of Lebanon, where flights carrying medical aid, field hospitals, rescue experts and tracking dogs have been arriving since Wednesday.
Beirut's governor estimated up to 300,000 people may have been left temporarily homeless by the destruction, which he said would cost the debt-ridden country in excess of three billion dollars.
According to several officials, the explosion was caused by a fire igniting 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser stored for years in a ramshackle portside warehouse.
Even as they counted their dead and cleaned up the streets, many Lebanese were boiling with anger over a 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 as he picked up broken glass in Mar Mikhail, one of the worst-hit city districts.
Many questions were being asked as to how such a huge cargo of highly explosive material could have been left unsecured in Beirut for years.
We desperately need aid, not only us but all hospitals in Lebanon.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab and President Michel Aoun have promised to put the culprits behind bars, but trust in institutions is low and few on Beirut's streets held out hope for an impartial inquiry.
What is known so far?
Losses from the blast are estimated to be between $10 billion to $15 billion, Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud told the Saudi-owned TV station Al-Hadath on Wednesday, adding that nearly 300,000 people are homeless.
The head of Lebanon's customs department meanwhile confirmed in an interview with LBC TV late Wednesday that officials had sent five or six letters over the years to the judiciary asking that the ammonium nitrate be removed because of the dangers it posed.
But Badri Daher said all he could do was alert authorities to the presence of dangerous materials, saying even that was "extra work'' for him and his predecessor. He said the port authority was responsible for the material, while his job was to prevent smuggling and collect duties.
The judiciary and the port authority could not immediately be reached for comment. The government said Wednesday that an investigation was underway and that port officials have been placed under house arrest.
The investigation into the explosion is focused on how 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical used in fertilizers, came to be stored at the port facility for six years, and why nothing was done about it.
The cargo had been stored at the port since it was confiscated from a ship years earlier. Based on the timeline and the size of the cargo, that ship could be the MV Rhosus. The ship was initially seized in Beirut in 2013 when it entered the port due to technical problems, according to lawyers involved in the case. It came from the nation of Georgia, and had been bound for Mozambique.
The stockpile is believed to have detonated after a fire broke out nearby in what appeared to be a warehouse holding fireworks. Daher, the customs official, said he did not know if there were fireworks near the site.
Another theory is that the fire began when welders were trying to repair a broken gate and a hole in the wall of Hangar 12, where the explosive material was stored. Local news reports say the repair work was ordered by security forces who investigated the facility and were concerned about theft.
Security officials have declined to comment while the investigation is underway. Port officials have rejected the theory in interviews with local media, saying the welders completed their work long before the fire broke out.
Anger is mounting against the various political factions, including the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group, that have ruled the country since the 1975-1990 civil war. The country's long-serving politicians are widely seen as being hopelessly corrupt and incapable of providing even basic services like electricity and trash collection.
A failed state
The tiny Mediterranean country was already on the brink of collapse, with soaring unemployment and a financial crisis that has wiped out people's life savings. Hospitals were already strained by the coronavirus pandemic, and one was so badly damaged by the blast it had to treat patients in a nearby field.
Dr. Firas Abiad, director general of Rafik Hariri University Hospital, the public hospital leading the coronavirus fight, said he expects an increase in cases in the next 10 to 15 days linked to crowding at hospitals and blood donation centers after the blast.
Authorities had largely contained the outbreak by imposing a sweeping lockdown in March and April, but case numbers have risen in recent weeks. A renewed lockdown was to go in effect this week but those plans were canceled after the explosion. The country has reported more than 5,400 coronavirus cases and 68 deaths since February.
"There is no doubt that our immunity in the country is less than before the explosion and this will affect us medium- to long-term,'' Abiad said. "We desperately need aid, not only us but all hospitals in Lebanon."
The explosion was the most powerful blast ever seen in the city, which has survived decades of war and conflict. Several city blocks were left littered with rubble, broken glass and damaged vehicles.
Authorities have cordoned off the port itself, where the blast left a crater 200 meters (yards) across and shredded a large grain silo, emptying its contents into the rubble. Estimates suggested about 85% of the import-reliant country's grain was stored there.