BEIRUT: French President Emmanuel Macron toured Beirut's shattered streets on Thursday (Aug 6), pledging support and urging change after a massive explosion devastated the Lebanese capital in a disaster that has sparked grief and fury.
He was surrounded by crowds demanding an 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," Macron told one group, shaking their hands on roads strewn with rubble and flanked by shops with windows blown out.
Tuesday's blast killed at least 145 and injured 5,000.
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.
READ: Lebanon gives investigators 4 days to find culprits of Beirut explosion as international aid arrives
Macron promised to help organise international aid but said Lebanon's government must implement economic reforms and crack down on corruption.
"If reforms are not carried out, Lebanon will continue to sink," Macron said after being met at the airport by Lebanese President Michel Aoun. "What is also needed here is political change. This explosion should be the start of a new era."
"Lebanon is not alone," he tweeted earlier on arrival.
Paris has spearheaded international mobilisation in support of its former colony Lebanon, where flights carrying medical aid, field hospitals, rescue experts and tracking dogs have arrived since Wednesday.
One man told Macron: "We hope this aid will go to the Lebanese people not the corrupt leaders."
Before the Beirut port blast, 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 Macron, appealing for help from Lebanon's former colonial power.
Some of the crowd, who were filmed by a pool report 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."
Two days on, Lebanon is still reeling from a blast so huge it was felt in neighbouring countries.
The death toll is expected to rise. Beirut's governor estimated up to 300,000 people have been left temporarily homeless by the destruction, which he said would cost the debt-ridden country in excess of three billion dollars.
Offering a glimmer of hope amid the carnage, a French rescuer said there was a "good chance of finding ... people alive", especially a group believed to be trapped in a room under the rubble.
"We are looking for seven or eight missing people, who could be stuck in a control room buried by the explosion," the colonel told Macron as he surveyed the site.
READ: What we know about the Beirut explosions so far
Prosecutors in France opened an investigation on Wednesday after 21 French citizens were wounded in the devastating blast.
Human Rights Watch supported mounting calls for an international probe into the disaster.
"An independent investigation with international experts is the best guarantee that victims of the explosion will get the justice they deserve," the watchdog said.
GOVERNMENT PROMISES FULL INVESTIGATION
At the port, destroyed by Tuesday's giant mushroom cloud and fireball, families sought news about the missing, amid mounting public anger at the authorities for allowing huge quantities of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, used in making fertilisers and bombs, to be stored there for years in unsafe conditions.
The government has ordered some port officials be put under house arrest and promised a full investigation.
"They will scapegoat somebody to defer responsibility," said Rabee Azar, a 33-year-old construction worker, speaking near the smashed remains of the port's grain silo, surrounded by other mangled masonry and flattened buildings.
With banks in crisis, a collapsing currency and one of the world's biggest debt burdens, Economy Minister Raoul Nehme said Lebanon had "very limited" resources to deal with the disaster, which by some estimates may have cost the nation up to $15 billion. He said the country needed foreign aid.
Offers of medical and other immediate aid have poured in, as officials have said hospitals, some heavily damaged in the blast, do not have enough beds and equipment.
Operations have been paralysed at Beirut port, Lebanon's main route for imports needed to feed a nation of more than 6 million people, forcing ships to divert to smaller ports.