French President Emmanuel Macron toured Beirut’s shattered streets on Thursday, two days after a giant explosion, with crowds demanding the end to a “regime” of politicians they blame for corruption and dragging Lebanon into disaster.
“I see the emotion on your face, the sadness, the pain. This is why I’m here,” he told one group, shaking their hands on roads strewn with rubble and flanked by shops with windows blown out after Tuesday’s blast that killed 145 and injured 5,000.
"I guarantee you, this aid will not go to corrupt hands," Macron added.
The massive explosion appeared to have been caused by an accidental fire that ignited a warehouse full of ammonium nitrate at the city’s port.
Macron, wearing a black tie in mourning and flanked by security guards, promised to send more medical and other aid to Lebanon, while those around him chanted “Revolution” and “The people want the fall of the regime.”
“But what is also needed here is political change. This explosion should be the start of a new era,” Macron said, making the tour shortly after arriving on the first visit to Lebanon by a foreign leader since the blast.
The president has said he would deliver “home truths” to a government that France and other Western donors have said must reform the country’s politics and the economy.
One man told Macron: “We hope this aid will go to the Lebanese people not the corrupt leaders.”
Before the Beirut port blast, whose explosive force was registered hundreds of miles (kilometers) away, Lebanon was grappling with an imploding economy - its banks in crisis, currency in freefall and mountain of debts climbing.
“Mr. President, you’re on General Gouraud Street, he freed us from the Ottomans. Free us from the current authorities,” said one person among the crowd who gathered around him, appealing for help from Lebanon’s former colonial power.
Some of the crowd, who were filmed in a predominantly Christian district of the capital, shouted: “Mr. Macron, free us from Hezbollah,” referring to the Iran-backed Shi’ite Muslim group, a powerful player in a nation where political loyalties often run along sectarian lines.
After visiting a pharmacy damaged by the explosion, Macron told the crowd: “I understand your anger. I am not here to write a blank cheque ... to the regime.”
Losses from the blast are estimated to be between $10 billion to $15 billion, Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud told the Saudi-owned TV station Al-Hadath on Wednesday, adding that nearly 300,000 people are homeless.
The head of Lebanon’s customs department meanwhile confirmed in an interview with LBC TV late Wednesday that officials had sent five or six letters over the years to the judiciary asking that the ammonium nitrate be removed because of the dangers it posed.
But Badri Daher said all he could do was alert authorities to the presence of dangerous materials, saying even that was “extra work” for him and his predecessor. He said the port authority was responsible for the material, while his job was to prevent smuggling and collect duties.
The judiciary and the port authority could not immediately be reached for comment. The government said Wednesday that an investigation was underway and that port officials have been placed under house arrest.