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Beirut blast: Macron pledges international aid as protests erupt in Lebanon

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Riot police advance to push back anti-government protesters in Beirut on Thursday.
Riot police advance to push back anti-government protesters in Beirut on Thursday.   -   Copyright  Hassan Ammar/Associated Press
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Lebanese security forces clashed with anti-government protesters in Beirut on Thursday night amid an official visit by French President Emmanuel Macron.

Tear gas was used to disperse protesters near government buildings as public anger and frustration at the government spilled over onto the streets.

Macron arrived in Lebanon on Thursday where he promised international aid for the country after a deadly blast tore through the capital three days ago, killing at least 137 people. But he said the government should crackdown on corruption and implement economic reforms.

Macron was walking through Beirut's damaged streets as crowds jostled around him chanting for the government to "fall" and asking for international aid.

He promised locals a "new political pact", and would give the Lebanese government until September 1 to impose it.

During a press conference on Thursday evening, he said French aid to Lebanon will be channelled "directly towards NGOs" and promised to organise an aid conference with the EU in the coming days.

But he warned there would be "no blank cheque to a system that doesn't have the confidence of the people."

Macron also called for an independent investigation into the causes of the explosion.

“There is a political, moral, economic and financial crisis that has lasted several months, several years. This implies strong political responsibility,” Macron said, adding that he discussed addressing corruption and other urgent reforms with Lebanon's president and prime minister.

“I came here to show the support of the French nation for the Lebanese people,” Macron said.

The Lebanese government has ordered the house arrest of several Beirut port officials, as investigators probing Tuesday's massive explosion focused on possible negligence in the storage of tons of a highly explosive fertiliser in a waterfront warehouse.

Rescuers are still searching for survivors after the blast at the capital’s port, which sent shock waves deep into the city, killing at least 137 and injuring thousands. Victims include several European nationals.

There is mounting anger in Lebanon at the failure of politicians and officials to prevent the disaster.

'The crisis here is serious'

French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in the country shortly after 11:15 CEST on Thursday, stressing on Twitter that "Lebanon is not alone."

Macron met with President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Hassan Diab as well as emergency services and NGOs at the port.

Paris has already sent three planes carrying aid and medical supplies and a fourth will be arriving later on Thursday.

"We will have to organise additional support in the coming days, at the French level, also at the European level. I wish to organise European cooperation and more broadly international cooperation," Macron said.

"The priority is aid, support to the population, unconditionally," he went on, adding: "Because it's Lebanon, because it's France."

But the French leader also said he will meet with the entire political establishment, as well as intellectuals and journalists for "a dialogue of truth".

"Beyond the explosion, we know that the crisis here is serious, it implies historical responsibility from the leaders in place. It is a political, moral, economic and financial crisis of which the first victims are the Lebanese people. And it imposes extremely rapid reactions," he argued.

The country must reform, he insisted. "This is the demand that France has been calling for, for months, if not years"

"If these reforms are not made, Lebanon will continue to sink," he warned.

'Negligence from the ruling elite'

The Lebanese government has said that the explosion was caused by the detonation of ammonium nitrate confiscated from a cargo ship and stored at the port since 2014.

Many want to know why such material was kept for so long, in such an unsafe manner, so close to heavily populated areas.

A lawyers' report from 2015 referred to the "dangerous" nature of the cargo and said it was being kept in the port "awaiting auction and/or proper disposal". Yet it remained there until Tuesday's disastrous consequences unfolded.

Lebanon's Prime Minister Hassan Diab has launched an investigation, saying he will seek maximum punishment for those responsible. But many are directing their anger far beyond port officials.

"This is negligence from the ruling elite. An atomic bomb was there for years, and not a single leader or ruler did anything about it," one male Beirut resident told Euronews.

The explosion caused more damage in an instant in Beirut than any previous event, including during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

'COVID-19 now harder to contain'

Lebanon's health minister has said that there are probably many more victims buried under the rubble. At least 137 people have died, a Health Ministry spokesperson told AFP,

Several European nationals are among the fatalities including French architect Jean-Marc Bonfils. Macron added that "several French families have been bereaved by this explosion".

A German diplomat also lost her life.

"Our worst fear has been confirmed," Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas announced on Twitter. "A member of our embassy in Beirut died in her apartment as a result of the explosion. All employees at the Federal Foreign Office are deeply saddened."

More than 5,000 were also wounded by the explosion.

The Hotel Dieu de France hospital, which treated 700 injured people following the blast, told Euronews on Thursday that 70 patients are still being treated at the facility with "moderate and severe injuries."

The CEO of the Rafik Hariri Hospital, Firass Abiad, has warned of the consequences of the explosion on the country's ability to combat the new coronavirus.

He said on Twitter that although the health service had previously performed "admirably despite all odds", the chaos following the explosion made it impossible to adhere to COVID-19 safety rules. He also pointed out that the destruction of the main port may have logistical implications for the delivery of medical supplies.

"In short, COVID-19, on the rise, will be more difficult to contain after what has happened. The tolerance of people to lockdown is at a minimum.

Whole neighbourhoods were left flattened or uninhabitable due to widespread damage.

Beirut's governor has estimated that at least a quarter of a million people have been left without a home. Many other residents have been opening their doors to those in distress in a display of solidarity, as a two-week state of emergency was declared in the capital.

Journalist Carol Malouf Khattab in Beirut told Euronews that people were getting no help from the government on the ground, fuelling anger at the country's rulers and a system widely seen as broken.

The disaster has brought further misery to a country which has been gripped by a major banking and economic crisis, compounded by the coronavirus pandemic.

International relief effort

From Australia to Indonesia to Europe and the United States, countries have been scrambling to send in aid and search teams.

The European Union is activating its civil protection system to round up emergency workers and equipment from across the 27 member states. France sent two planes carrying specialists and supplies ahead of Macron's visit. Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland and the Netherlands are among those taking part, with more expected to join.

Other countries that are sending help include the UK, Russia, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan. Israel, technically still at war with Lebanon, has also offered aid.

However, there are calls for donors to bypass Lebanon's government and work via NGOs to distribute supplies.

Given Lebanon's fragile state and the political elite's reputation for corruption and incompetence, there is hesitancy among some backers, including France, to keep propping up a country in dire need of reform.