French president Emmanuel Macron warned on Sunday that the future of Lebanon and the region was at stake as he called for an urgent aid effort after the huge chemical explosion that devastated the capital.
Opening an international videoconference to co-ordinate aid in the aftermath of the ammonium nitrate blast at the port of Beirut, Mr Macron said: “Right now, it is certainly the future of Lebanon and its people that’s at stake, but also the future of an entire region.”
Among those joining the meeting by video link was US president Donald Trump. Turkey and Russia were invited but did not attend, although Mr Macron said he was “sure” both would provide aid. Everyone should support Lebanon in its hour of need, he said, “even if geopolitical conditions make things more difficult”.
France, which ran Lebanon under a League of Nations mandate until 1943, has called for urgent aid to rebuild schools and hospitals, provide medicines and food supplies and find shelter for 300,000 left homeless by the blast.
Mr Macron also wants donors to help with an “impartial, credible and independent inquiry” into the causes of the catastrophe, and is demanding political reforms to tackle entrenched corruption and restore order to the economy and the country’s banking system in co-ordination with the IMF.
More than 150 people were killed and thousands injured after a chemical explosion at Beirut port last Tuesday that caused billions of dollars worth of damage. So far, popular rage has been directed at Lebanon’s entrenched political elite, who are seen as corrupt and incompetent and widely held collectively responsible for the explosion.
Manal Abdel Samad, information minister and government spokesperson, resigned on Sunday, saying “changes were still far from reach”, according to the state news agency. The economy minister, Raoul Nehme, is also set to resign, his adviser confirmed to the Financial Times.
The conference came a day after protesters stormed government buildings and state security forces violently cracked down on demonstrators. Hundreds were injured in violent clashes in Beirut.
The Lebanese Red Cross said it treated 185 people at the scene of protests and took 65 more to hospital. Soldiers were filmed beating demonstrators, police fired tear gas on the crowd of thousands and many were reported hit by rubber bullets.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab on Saturday night said he would introduce a bill to call early elections, adding that he was prepared to “hold responsibility for [the premiership] for two months”. Mr Diab was appointed in March after the previous government resigned in the face of mass protests against official corruption and growing inequality.
An investigation into Tuesday’s explosion is being conducted by the military police under the direction of Lebanon’s state prosecutor, and is intended to determine why 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate were stored in a warehouse in the port for more than six years.
After the explosion, Lebanese president Michel Aoun admitted that he was made aware of the presence of explosive materials in the port in late June. He has rejected demands for an international inquiry.
Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Iran-backed militia and powerful political party Hizbollah, denied on Friday that the group kept weapons in the port.
Lebanon had already been seeking a bailout from the IMF even before Tuesday’s disaster, after Beirut defaulted on its $90bn debt pile in March and its economy went into freefall. But talks stalled as the new government failed to enact reforms that the international community said were a prerequisite for any support to its Treasury, or find consensus over financial losses with its central bank and commercial lenders.
Countries from Iran to Turkey and the Gulf have sent planes to Beirut with medical supplies and other emergency aid. International rescue teams arrived in the days after the blast to try to rescue people from the rubble but they found no one alive, according to a European firefighter co-ordinator.
The European Commission has already pledged $33m in initial emergency aid, and European Council president Charles Michel met Lebanese leaders in Beirut on Saturday.
The government has been strongly criticised by protesters for its lacklustre emergency response. In an apparent response to fears that the aid would be abused, Mr Macron said “we will be very attentive that the aid is deployed effectively on the ground, to the population”.