Show of solidarity after Beirut blast as Lebanon braces for protests

Show of solidarity after Beirut blast as Lebanon braces for protests
Lebanon Explosion

Senior officials from the Middle East and Europe started arriving in Lebanon on Saturday in a show of solidarity with the tiny country after the deadly explosion in Beirut which caused large-scale damage in the capital.

The visits by the head of the Arab League and the president of the European Council came as the country was braced for large anti-government protests amid widespread anger at Lebanon’s political leadership.

Security forces fired tear gas at stone-throwing protesters after they tried to reach the Parliament area in central Beirut.

And thousands of people had poured into Beirut’s main square, hanging up symbolic nooses that they say officials should be hanged with after this week’s blast.

The country’s ruling class, made up mostly of former civil war-era leaders, is being blamed for widespread corruption, incompetence and mismanagement which contributed to Tuesday’s blast.

In a show of anger, the president of the Christian opposition Kataeb party said its three politicians have decided to resign from Parliament over this week’s “disaster”.

Sami Gemayel called on every “honourable” member of parliament to resign and work for the “birth of a new Lebanon”.

Relatives of Kataeb party secretary-general Nazar Najarian, who was killed in the blast, take part in his funeral procession in Beirut (Hassan Ammar/AP)

A senior Kataeb party official was killed in the explosion, which claimed at least 154 lives, injured more than 5,000 people and laid waste to the country’s largest port and nearby areas.

Among the dead were 43 Syrians, the country’s embassy in Beirut said. Lebanon is home to around one million Syrian refugees.

The Dutch foreign ministry said on Saturday that Hedwig Waltmans-Molier, the wife of the Netherlands’ ambassador to Lebanon, had also died of injuries suffered in Tuesday’s blast.

The explosion of thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the port, apparently set off by a fire, was the biggest in Lebanon’s history and caused an estimated 10-15 billion US dollars (£7.6 billion-£11.5 billion) damage, according to Beirut’s governor. It also left hundreds of thousands of people homeless.

The blast came at a time when Lebanon is mired in its worst economic and financial crisis in decades, making it difficult for many people who had their properties damaged to repair them.

Divers carry out searches at the site of the blast (Thibault Camus/AP)

Documents that surfaced after the blast showed that for years officials had been repeatedly warned that the presence of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate at the port posed a grave danger, but no-one acted to remove it.

Officials have been blaming one another since the explosion and 19 people have been detained, including the port’s chief, head of Lebanon’s customs department and his predecessor.

“We will support Lebanon through all available means,” Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the secretary-general of the 22-member Arab League, told reporters after meeting President Michel Aoun on Saturday morning.

Mr Aboul Gheit said he would take part in a donors conference for Lebanon in France on Sunday and convey Lebanon’s demands to the international community.

Later on Saturday, European Council president Charles Michel arrived in Beirut for a brief visit.

Turkey’s vice president and the country’s foreign minister also arrived on Saturday morning and met Mr Aoun, saying that Ankara is ready to help rebuild Beirut’s port and evacuate some of the casualties from Lebanon to Turkey for treatment.

At the site of the blast in Beirut’s port, workers were still searching for dozens of people who have been missing since Tuesday. Bulldozers were also seen removing debris near the giant grain silos that are still partly standing.

Diggers are being used in the search for victims (Thibault Camus/AP)

International aid has been flowing to Lebanon for days and several field hospitals have been set up around Beirut to help treat the wounded.

US President Donald Trump said on Friday that he had spoken by telephone with Mr Aoun and French President Emmanuel Macron, who paid a brief visit to Lebanon on Thursday.

Mr Trump did not mention the investigation, but noted that medical supplies, food and water were being sent from the United States, along with emergency responders, technicians, doctors and nurses.

The ammonium nitrate, a chemical used in fertilisers and explosives, originated from a cargo ship called MV Rhosus that had been travelling from the country of Georgia to Mozambique in 2013.

It made an unscheduled detour to Beirut as the ship’s Russian owner was struggling with debts and hoped to earn some extra cash in Lebanon. Unable to pay port fees and reportedly leaking, the vessel was impounded.

In 2014, the material was moved from the ship and placed in a warehouse at the port, where it stayed until the explosion.

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