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French president Emmanuel Macron has warned Lebanon that the country will continue to sink if the government does not push ahead with much-needed reforms as mounting public anger over a blast that killed more than 130 people raged across Beirut.

“The priority is unconditional aid and support for the population,” Mr Macron said in the Lebanese capital. “We will be there for you and won’t give up on you.”

However, he added that he wanted to have a real dialogue with politicians about economic and political reforms that Paris had been demanding for years to fight corruption and stabilise the country. “If reforms are not carried out, Lebanon will continue to sink,” he said.

He called for “strong political initiatives to fight against corruption” and a “transparent audit of the central bank and the banking system”.

Many Lebanese blame the ruling elite for the economic malaise and a dysfunctional state, which is seen as a root cause of the explosion of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a fertiliser that can also be used in bombs, at Beirut port on Tuesday. Lebanon was a French mandate in the years after the first world war.

As Mr Macron visited the battered east Beirut neighbourhood of Gemmayze, dozens of volunteers undertaking the clean-up shouted “the people want the fall of the regime” — a slogan used during mass protests last year that forced the resignation of the previous government. Protesters also denounced the Lebanese president, chanting “terrorist, terrorist, Michel Aoun is a terrorist”.

The anger was palpable across Beirut. A decent government “would not have left this bomb in the middle of the country”, said Maria, a 65-year-old shop owner wearing a Lebanese flag bandanna around her head. 

Members of the Lebanese civil defence use a dog to search for victims and survivors under the rubble of a building © AFP via Getty Images

Mr Macron told crowds that French aid would not go to “corrupt hands”, while adding that he would seek a new deal with Lebanon’s political leaders.

“I will talk to all political forces to ask them for a new pact. I am here today to propose a new political pact to them,” he said. The roots of Lebanon’s political turmoil date back to the end of its 15-year civil war in 1990 and the decision to share power through sectarian quotas. Critics say that this system has created an entrenched political class of warlords or “chiefs”, who divide power and influence between themselves along sectarian lines.

Mr Macron said that an international fundraising conference would be held in the coming days. Donors have been holding back financial assistance as Lebanon’s economic crisis has deepened because of longstanding frustrations over politicians’ failure to enact reforms as well as concerns about graft and the prominent role of Hizbollah, the militant movement that is part of the coalition government.

“The Lebanese political system plays a huge role in why the country is in the economic state it is in today, and with Lebanon not able to meet the costs of reconstruction or stand on its feet economically, now there’s a chance to send aid that would support its economy but also act as a vehicle for implementing necessary reform,” said Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East programme at Chatham House.

“With popular anger in Lebanon mounting . . . the Lebanese powers have to recognise if they are going to at least retain a degree of power, they have to engage in some measure of reform,” she added.

Beirut was already in talks with the IMF in the hope of receiving a bailout after it defaulted on its $90bn debt pile in March, but those negotiations had ground to a halt because of political infighting in Lebanon.

Kristalina Georgieva, the IMF’s managing director, on Wednesday said the fund was “exploring all possible ways to support the people of Lebanon”.

“It is essential to overcome the impasse in the discussions on critical reforms and put in place a meaningful programme to turn around the economy and build accountability and trust in the future of the country,” she said. “It is also a time for the international community and the friends of Lebanon to step up to help the country in this moment of urgent need.”

In an economic recovery plan finalised in April, the government banked on receiving $10bn in international support. The Lebanese pound has collapsed and the inflation rate has risen to about 56 per cent, while the IMF forecasts that the economy will contract 12 per cent this year.

Earlier, Lebanon’s economy minister Raoul Nehme told Sky News Arabia that his cash-strapped country did not have the financial capability to “face the repercussions” of the Beirut port explosion, which is thought to have caused billions of dollars worth of damage. Beirut’s governor Marwan Abboud has put the cost of the damage at $3bn-$5bn. Mr Nehme said that co-operation with the IMF was “the only solution”.

Many countries have pledged humanitarian assistance after the blast destroyed much of Beirut port, which is the vital artery for about three-quarters of Lebanon’s imports.

A woman sits in front of a damaged building after the huge explosion
A woman sits in front of a damaged building after the huge explosion © Nabil Mounzer/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Aerial view of ruined structures at Beirut port
Aerial view of ruined structures at Beirut port © El Achkar/Getty

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday morning that the bloc was “mobilising over €33m for first emergency needs with further support being considered” for Lebanon.

The UK has pledged up to £5m in humanitarian funding, while Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, has said Washington will “announce a number of things we intend to do to assist the people of Lebanon in the coming days”. 

Regional players from Turkey to Iran and oil-rich Gulf states have flown in medical and emergency supplies.

Mr Nehme said grain silos at the port were “totally damaged” in the blast. Aid organisations have warned that the loss of the wheat, the staple food for Lebanon’s poorest, could hit food supplies.

Lebanon is clamouring for answers about who is responsible for the blast. A ministerial-level committee has been formed to oversee the process and given five days to report back.

But it has no judicial prerogative, Marie-Claude Najm, Lebanon’s justice minister, said. She said that the investigation was being led by Lebanon’s general prosecutor, and that a prosecutor at the military court was working under his direction. 

According to a spokesperson for the prime minister’s office, “all officials who knew about the ammonium nitrate” had been placed under house arrest. That list ranges from customs officials, judges and former ministers, all of whom have been revealed to have had knowledge of the ammonium nitrate store, but the spokesperson said they could not confirm names. 

The central bank has frozen accounts belonging to the head of Beirut’s port, the director of Lebanese customs, and five other officials, according to an order by the Banque du Liban’s special investigations committee circulated online. 

But many are not confident that the government can investigate itself, and human rights groups have called for an independent investigation with international experts. Mr Macron called for a “transparent” investigative process. 

The house arrests were ordered on Wednesday by the cabinet as scrutiny mounted over why authorities had allowed the ammonium nitrate to be stored at the port for six years. 

Experts said there were strict regulations that were supposed to govern the bulk storage of the chemical. 

Lebanese authorities seized an Africa-bound ship carrying 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate at Beirut port in late 2013, according to legal reports at the time. The law firm prosecuting the case said the cargo had been unloaded into a warehouse.

Cypriot police on Thursday questioned the ship’s owner Igor Grechushkin, about the vessel and its cargo. “He gave credible answers to all the questions that were sent from Beirut regarding the vessel and its cargo,” a senior Cypriot official said. Lebanese authorities have not asked for any legal action to be taken against Mr Grechushkin, the official said. 

Additional reporting by Kerin Hope in Athens

Previous chemical disasters

Tianjin, china (2015)

© Getty

A series of explosions that started at a warehouse for toxic chemicals in the northern Chinese port city led to 173 deaths, most of them firefighters and police, and left 800 injured.

The blasts ripped through an industrial area, destroying thousands of new cars, shipping containers and buildings and gouging out a gigantic crater. Economic losses were estimated at $1.1bn. Mismanagement and illegal storage of hazardous materials were blamed, with a court later sentencing 49 people to prison.

Toulouse, France (2001)

© Pascal Le Segretain/Sygma/Getty

An explosion at the AZF fertiliser factory 10 days after the 9/11 attacks left about 30 people dead and caused more than 2,000 casualties. The blast had the force of a 3.4-magnitude earthquake.

It was later discovered to have been caused by the contamination of ammonium nitrate with another compound used for cleaning swimming pool water. In 2017, a court found a subsidiary of oil company Total partly responsible and convicted the plant’s former manager.

Texas City, USA (1947)

© Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty

A fire aboard the docked ship SS Grandcamp detonated its cargo of ammonium nitrate, sending fireballs into the sky and triggering a 15ft tidal wave. 

One of the largest ever non-nuclear explosions, it was the deadliest industrial accident in US history, killing at least 581 people and injuring more than 5,000. 

A chain reaction of fires destroyed nearby chemical plants and oil storage facilities, with the scenes likened to the bombing of European cities in the second world war that had just ended. 

Oppau, Germany (1921)

© ullstein bild/Getty

The disaster happened when hundreds of tonnes of a fertiliser exploded. About 561 lives were lost, about 2,000 people hurt and most of the town’s buildings decimated.

The blast was reportedly heard 350km away in Munich. The incident occurred during the routine use of small dynamite charges to loosen a hardened mixture of ammonium nitrate and ammonium sulphate in a silo.

Michael Pooler

This piece has been amended to say that Lebanon was a former mandate of France not a colony.

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