Beirut (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday promised aid to blast-stricken Lebanon but reassured angry citizens reeling from a lethal explosion that killed 145 people that no blank cheques will be given to its leaders unless they enact reforms.
Speaking at a news conference at the end of a dramatic visit to Beirut, Macron called for an international inquiry into the devastating explosion that generated a seismic shock felt across the region, saying it was an urgent signal to carry out anti-corruption reforms demanded by a furious population.
Dozens are still missing after Tuesday’s explosion at the port that injured 5,000 people and left up to 250,000 without habitable homes, hammering a nation already staggering 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, paying the first visit by a foreign leader since the explosion, promised to help organise international aid. But he said a fully transparent international investigation into the blast was needed, and that the Lebanese government must implement economic reforms and curb corruption.
“If reforms are not carried out, Lebanon will continue to sink,” Macron said after being met at the airport by Lebanese President Michel Aoun. “What is also needed here is political change. This explosion should be the start of a new era.”
He told reporters later in Beirut that an audit was needed on the Lebanese central bank, among other urgent changes, and that the World Bank and United Nations would play a role in any Lebanese reforms.
“If there is no audit of the central bank, in a few months there will be no more imports and then there will be lack of fuel and of food,” said Macron.
Earlier, wearing a black tie in mourning, Macron toured the blast site and Beirut’s shattered streets where angry crowds demanded an end to a “regime” of Lebanese politicians they blame for corruption and dragging Lebanon into disaster.
“I guarantee you, this (reconstruction) aid will not go to corrupt hands,” Macron told the throngs who greeted him.
“I see the emotion on your face, the sadness, the pain. This is why I’m here,” he told one group, pledging to deliver “home truths” to Lebanon’s leaders.
He told reporters later at the French ambassador’s residence, where a French general declared the creation of the state of Lebanon exactly 100 years ago, Macron said it was no longer up to France to tell Lebanese leaders what to do.
But he said he could apply “pressure”, adding: “This morning, many people told me, ‘Bring back the mandate’. In a way you are asking me to be the guarantor of the emergence of a democratic revolution,” he said.
“But a revolution cannot be invited, the people will decide. Do not ask France to not respect your sovereignty.”
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 and its local ally Hezbollah.
One man on the street told Macron: “We hope this aid will go to the Lebanese people not the corrupt leaders.” Another said that, while a French president had taken time to visit them, Lebanon’s president had not.
At the port, destroyed by Tuesday’s giant mushroom cloud and fireball, families sought news about the missing, amid mounting public anger at the authorities for allowing huge quantities of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, used in making fertilisers and bombs, to be stored there for years in unsafe conditions.
The government has ordered some port officials be put under house arrest and promised a full investigation.
“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.
A central bank directive seen by Reuters later and confirmed by the bank said it had decided to freeze the accounts of the heads of Beirut port and Lebanese customs along with five others.
The directive, dated Aug. 6, from the central bank special investigation commission for money laundering and anti-terrorism efforts, said the decision would be circulated to all banks and financial institutions in Lebanon, the public prosecutor in the appeals court and the head of the banking authority.
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.
Many Lebanese, who have lost jobs and watched savings evaporate in the financial crisis, say the blast is symptomatic of political cronyism and rampant graft among the ruling elite.
Crooks and Liars
“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.
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.
An official source familiar with preliminary investigations blamed “inaction and negligence” for the blast.
A Lebanese security source said the initial blaze that sparked the explosion was caused by welding work.
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.
“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.
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.