The largest blast on Tuesday engulfed Beirut’s commercial center, eviscerated its port and killed at least 135 people. More than 5,000 residents were injured and others remain missing, officials said. As many as 300,000 people have been displaced, including almost 80,000 children, according to UNICEF.
The immediate cause of that explosion, which sent a towering plume of red smoke into the sky, appeared to be 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly volatile material used in fertilizer that can also be used to make bombs. It was stored in a warehouse at the port for about six years despite repeated warnings about the risk it posed — a revelation that has shaken Lebanon and crystallized decades of frustration at feckless political parties.
As officials tried to head off the public rage, Lebanon’s central bank on Thursday ordered the freezing of accounts belonging to the heads of Beirut’s port and Lebanese customs, according to the Reuters news agency. The authorities also detained 16 unnamed suspects during an investigation into the explosion, the state-run National News Agency reported.
But no government officials have taken responsibility for the explosion or announced their resignations after large parts of the city were wrecked. With little faith that Lebanon’s political parties could investigate themselves, nongovernmental groups, including New York-based Human Rights Watch, called on the Lebanese government to invite international experts to conduct an independent probe into the blasts.
As anger has mounted, however, people on the street and online have demanded even more dramatic action. Some have called for executions — a demand that, in the current environment, appears only partly hyperbolic and marks a shift from the mainly peaceful chants that have previously characterized Lebanon’s protests against the entrenched political system and its history of corruption.
“They keep talking about hanging the politicians,” one young Lebanese psychologist said in a WhatsApp group with her friends. “I’m down to build gallows and put their names on them.”
Macron, the first world leader to travel to Lebanon after the explosions, called for international experts to be included in any investigation. His visit, at times, made for a bizarre spectacle with some of those crowding around him calling for France to revive its historic colonial role in Lebanon and restore the French mandate.
France maintains strong relations with its former territory. In 2017, Macron successfully intervened to free then-Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri from Saudi Arabia, a move that helped the French president build goodwill in Lebanon.
Angry crowds surrounded Macron as he toured destruction in East Beirut’s historic quarter, and they warned of any plan to deliver French aid to Lebanon’s leaders without accounting for how it was spent. “How do you know if you give money to them, they won’t steal it?” one man shouted at him, referring to Lebanon’s political class.
“You’re protecting thugs,” another said as Macron pleaded with the crowd.
“Do you trust me?” he said, according to footage broadcast on Lebanese television. At one point, Macron was shown hugging a woman affected by the blast.
“I want this aid to directly reach the Lebanese people,” he continued. “We all felt the pain when the port exploded.”
Macron called for a transparent audit of Lebanon’s central bank and other financial institutions. The moves, he said, would allow the smooth delivery of aid as Lebanon seeks to rebuild.
Beirut’s governor, Marwan Abboud, said damage from the blast is estimated at $10 billion to $15 billion — an amount that Lebanon, already mired in financial ruin, is incapable of mobilizing on its own.
Countries around the world have rushed to offer assistance, with planes bearing humanitarian aid and medical teams landing or due to arrive from Turkey, Qatar, Kuwait, Egypt, France, Iran and Britain, among others.
Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of the U.S. Central Command, offered his condolences for the suffering in Beirut during a call on Thursday with the Lebanese Armed Forces commander, Gen. Joseph Aoun.
In a statement, Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for McKenzie, said that McKenzie had informed Aoun that the U.S. military had sent three military transport planes carrying food, water and medical supplies.
“Gen. McKenzie expressed U.S. willingness to continue to work with the Lebanese Armed Forces to help provide aid and assistance to meet the needs of the Lebanese people during this terrible tragedy,” Urban said.
Even before the blast, Lebanon’s economy was in collapse, and the latest disaster could push thousands of Lebanese toward or deeper below the poverty line. The explosions also destroyed Lebanon’s main grain silo, near the warehouse storing the ammonium nitrate, leaving the country with less than one month’s reserves of grain, according to the government.
Cunningham reported from Istanbul and Fahim from Baltimore. Suzan Haidamous and Missy Ryan in Washington and Louisa Loveluck in Baghdad contributed to this report.