Rescue teams were still searching the rubble of Beirut’s port for bodies on Friday, three days after a massive explosion sent a wave of destruction through Lebanon’s capital, killing nearly 150 people and wounding thousands.
At least four more bodies have been recovered in the last 24 hours, and authorities say the death toll has risen to 149. The blast shredded a large grain silo, devastated neighbourhoods near the port and left several city blocks littered with glass and rubble.
French and Russian rescue teams with dogs were searching the port area on Friday, the day after French President Emmanuel Macron paid a visit to the site, promising aid and vowing to press for reforms by Lebanon’s long-entrenched political leaders.
The blast was apparently caused by the ignition of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a chemical used for explosives and fertilizer, that had been stored at the port since it was confiscated from an impounded cargo ship in 2013.
The government has launched an investigation as it has come under mounting criticism, with many Lebanese blaming the catastrophe on negligence and corruption.
The United Nations human rights office is calling for an independent investigation into the Beirut explosion, insisting that “victims’ calls for accountability must be heard.”
Spokesperson Rupert Colville of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights cited the need for the international community to “step up” to help Lebanon with both a quick response and sustained engagement.
He said Lebanon is facing the “triple tragedy of a socio-economic crisis, COVID-19 and the ammonium nitrate explosion” that devastated the capital on Tuesday.
Colville also called for the poor and most vulnerable to be respected as Beirut and Lebanon rebuild, and urged Lebanese leaders to “overcome political stalemates and address the grievances of the population.”
That was an allusion to large protests that broke out in Lebanon in October.
Search and rescue teams have been sent from several countries to help locate survivors of the blast.
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A team of 55 French rescuers that began work Thursday has found four bodies, according to Col. Tissier Vincent, the head of the mission. Lebanese firefighters are also working at the demolished port, where bulldozers and excavators were churning through the rubble.
Dozens of people are still missing, and at the entrance to the port a family waited for news of a relative.
Some 300,000 people — more than 12 per cent of Beirut’s population — are unable to return to their homes because of the explosion, which blew out doors and windows across the city and left many buildings uninhabitable. Officials have estimated losses at $10 billion to $15 billion US.
Damaged hospitals, already strained by the coronavirus pandemic, are still struggling to deal with the wounded.
The investigation is focusing on port and customs officials, with 16 employees detained and others questioned. But many Lebanese say it points to much greater rot that permeates the political system and extends to the country’s top leadership.
For decades, Lebanon has been dominated by the same political elites — many of them former warlords and militia commanders from the 1975-1990 civil war. The ruling factions use public institutions to accumulate wealth and distribute patronage to supporters. Thirty years after the end of the civil war, power outages are still frequent, trash often goes uncollected and tap water is largely undrinkable.
Even before the blast, the country was mired in a severe economic crisis that was also widely blamed on the political class. Unemployment was soaring, and a collapse of the local currency wiped out many people’s savings, That will make the task of rebuilding after the blast even more daunting.