Politics

Macron visits traumatised Lebanon to offer help, urge reform

By AFP

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A Lebanese youth hugs French President Emmanuel Macron during a visit to the Gemmayzeh neighbourhood, which has suffered extensive damage due to a massive explosion in the Lebanese capital, on August 6th. [AFP]

French President Emmanuel Macron visited shell-shocked Beirut Thursday (August 6th), 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 co-ordinate international relief efforts after the colossal blast killed at least 137 people, wounded thousands and 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.

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Volunteers carry their equipment as they help clear debris in the neighbourhood of Gemmayze on August 6th, following a blast in a warehouse in the Beirut port that killed more than 130 people and caused widespread destruction. [AFP]

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.

Macron told angry crowds 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.

"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.

The deadly explosion left dozens more missing and a staggering 5,000 people wounded, many by flying shards of glass as windows imploded.

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

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.

Spontaneous solidarity

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.

Beirut's governor estimated up to 300,000 people have been left temporarily homeless by the destruction, which he said would cost the debt-ridden country in excess of $3 billion.

According to several officials, the explosion was caused by a fire igniting 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser stored for years in the warehouse.

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.

Much of the cleanup has been handled by volunteers in improvised working groups who bring their own equipment and organise online appeals for help.

"We are sending people into the damaged homes of the elderly and handicapped to help them find a home for tonight," said Husam Abu Nasr, a 30-year-old volunteer.

"We do not have a state to take these steps, so we took matters into our own hands."

Meanwhile, Lebanon's diaspora, estimated at nearly three times the size of the tiny country's population of five million, has stepped up to provide assistance.

Lebanese expats rushed to wire money to loved ones who lost their homes or were injured in the blast, while others worked to create special funds to address the tragedy.

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