Lebanon probe body gets 4 days to find culprits

Death toll rises to 137

Agence France-Presse . Paris | Published: 01:00, Aug 07,2020


The government of Lebanon has given an ‘investigative committee’ four days to determine responsibility for the devastating explosion in Beirut port on Tuesday, foreign minister Charbel Wehbe told French radio Thursday.

‘This morning, a decision was taken to create an investigative committee which in four days maximum must provide a detailed report on responsibility — how, who, what, where? There will be judicial decisions,’ he told Europe 1 radio.

‘It is serious, and we take it seriously,’ Wehbe said.

‘Those responsible for this horrible crime of negligence will be punished by a committee of judges,’ he added.

The provisional death toll from the massive blast stood at 137 Thursday, but with dozens missing and 5,000  wounded, the number of victims was expected to rise as rescue workers continued to comb through the rubble.

The death toll was expected to rise as rescue workers keep digging through the rubble.

The Beirut governor estimated up to 3,00,000 people may have been made temporarily homeless by the disaster, which he said would cost the debt-ridden country in excess of $3 billion.

On Wednesday, the government called for the house arrest of those responsible for the storage of a large quantity of ammonium nitrate, a substance used in fertilisers and explosives, in the port of the Lebanese capital.

Meanwhile, French president Emmanuel Macron visited shell-shocked Beirut Thursday, pledging support and urging change after a massive explosion devastated the Lebanese capital in a disaster that has sparked grief and fury.

‘Lebanon is not alone,’ he tweeted on arrival before pledging Paris would coordinate international relief efforts after the colossal blast that caused billions of dollars in damage.

But Macron also warned that Lebanon — already mired in a deep economic crisis, in desperate need of a bailout and hit by political turmoil — would ‘continue to sink’ unless it implements urgent reforms.

Public anger is on the boil over the blast caused by a massive pile of ammonium nitrate that had for years lain in a ramshackle portside warehouse — proof to many Lebanese of the deep rot at the core of their state system.

Macron visited Beirut’s harbourside blast zone, now a wasteland of blackened ruins, rubble and charred debris where a 140 metre wide crater has filled with sea water.

As Macron inspected a devastated pharmacy, angry crowds outside vented their fury at their ‘terrorist’ leadership, shouting ‘revolution’ and ‘the people want an end to the regime!’

‘Come rule us!’ one man yelled at the president.

Macron told them he would urge Lebanon’s leaders to accept ‘a new political deal’ and ‘to change the system, to stop the division of Lebanon, to fight against corruption’.

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 told Macron as he surveyed the site.

Paris has spearheaded international mobilisation in support of Lebanon, where flights carrying medical aid, field hospitals, rescue experts and tracking dogs have arrived since Wednesday.

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.

The disaster could reignite a cross-sectarian protest movement that erupted last October and had looked briefly like it could topple what activists consider a hereditary kleptocracy.

Human Rights Watch supported mounting calls for an international probe into the disaster, saying it was ‘the best guarantee that victims of the explosion will get the justice they deserve’.

In France, prosecutors have opened a probe into the blast over injuries suffered by 21 French citizens.

Amid the gloom and fury, the aftermath of the terrible explosion has also yielded countless uplifting examples of spontaneous solidarity.

Business owners swiftly took to social media, posting offers to repair doors, paint damaged walls or replace shattered windows for free.

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