Lebanon gives investigators 4 days to find culprits of Beirut explosion as international aid arrives
BEIRUT: The government of Lebanon has given an "investigative committee" four days to determine responsibility for the devastating explosion in Beirut port on Tuesday (Aug 4), Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe told French radio on Thursday.
"This morning, a decision was taken to create an investigative committee which in four days maximum must provide a detailed report on responsibility – how, who, what, where? There will be judicial decisions," he told Europe 1 radio.
"It is serious, and we take it seriously," Wehbe said.
"Those responsible for this horrible crime of negligence will be punished by a committee of judges," he added.
The provisional death toll from the massive blast stood at 137 on Thursday, but with dozens missing and 5,000 wounded, the number of victims was expected to rise as rescue workers continued to comb through the rubble.
The Beirut governor estimated up to 300,000 people may have been made temporarily homeless by the disaster, which he said would cost the debt-ridden country in excess of US$3 billion.
On Wednesday, the government called for the house arrest of those responsible for the storage of a large quantity of ammonium nitrate, a substance used in fertilisers and explosives, in the port of the Lebanese capital.
According to Lebanese officials, the explosion was caused by a fire igniting 2,750 tonnes of the substance in a portside warehouse.
"It is an accident ... preliminary reports indicate it is mismanagement of explosive products. This is a very serious neglect that continued for six years," said Wehbe.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab and President Michel Aoun have promised to put the culprits behind bars, but trust in institutions is low, and few on the streets of the Lebanese capital hold out hope of an impartial inquiry.
Human Rights Watch on Thursday supported mounting calls for an international probe as the only credible option.
"An independent investigation with international experts is the best guarantee that victims of the explosion will get the justice they deserve," the watchdog said.
COUNTRIES SEND AID, CONDOLENCES
Countries dispatched emergency medical aid, field hospitals, rescue experts and tracking dogs to Lebanon as the world reacted swiftly to the explosion in a nation already close to economic collapse.
Gulf states were among the first to respond, with Qatar sending mobile hospitals to ease pressure on Lebanon's medical system, strained by the coronavirus pandemic.
A Qatari air force plane delivered hundreds of collapsible beds, generators and burn sheets in the first of a convoy of flights to Beirut.
Kuwait also sent medical supplies as the Lebanese Red Cross said more than 4,000 people were being treated for injuries after the explosion, which sent glass shards and debris flying.
A Greek C-130 army transport plane bearing a dozen rescuers landed at Beirut's airport, itself damaged in the catastrophic blast.
Algeria said it would send four planes and a ship with humanitarian aid, medical teams, firefighters, supplies and construction materials.
Lebanon's prime minister has called on "friendly countries" to support a nation reeling from its worst economic crisis in decades as well as a coronavirus outbreak that has infected over 5,000 people and killed 68.
As emergency crews hauled survivors from the rubble of demolished buildings, France said it was sending search and rescue experts aboard three military planes loaded with a mobile clinic and tonnes of medical and sanitary supplies.
French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Lebanon on Thursday, the first foreign leader to do so after the disaster, as France seeks to swiftly push reconstruction in its former colony.
"I want to organise European cooperation and, more broadly, international cooperation," he said upon arrival in Beirut, where he will stay just a few hours to survey the site of the explosion and meet the country's top officials.
Prosecutors in France also opened an investigation into the blast, which wounded 24 French citizens.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II sent a message to the president of Lebanon, saying she was "deeply saddened" by the blast.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a phone call with Diab, offered Washington's assistance and stressed "our solidarity with and support for the Lebanese people as they strive for the dignity, prosperity and security they deserve".
Cyprus, parts of which felt the blast from about 240km away, said it was sending eight police tracking dogs and their handlers aboard two helicopters.
From Europe, authorities in the Netherlands, Czech Republic and Poland offered an array of assistance including doctors, police and firefighters, together with rescue experts and sniffer dogs.
Italy said it had sent 14 firefighters specialised in assessing chemical risks and damaged structures to provide technical support.
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, itself battling the Middle East's deadliest coronavirus outbreak, said Tehran stood "ready to offer medical and medicinal aid and help treat the injured".
“STAY STRONG, LEBANON”
The World Health Organization said it was sending trauma and surgical kits from its Dubai base after the "shocking event" that comes at a "particularly difficult time in Lebanon".
"Many hospitals are overwhelmed with casualties and people are still looking for the injured and the dead, so it's a very sad day," said UN emergencies director Michael Ryan.
In a statement, the World Bank Group said it "stands ready to deploy its expertise to undertake a rapid damage and needs assessment and to develop a reconstruction plan as per international standards”.
Unusually, neighbouring Israel offered humanitarian aid – to a country with which it is still technically at war – via international intermediaries.
In the coastal city of Tel Aviv, Lebanon's flag was projected onto the city hall on Wednesday evening.
US President Donald Trump, who said the explosions looked like "a terrible attack", without giving any evidence, said: "Our prayers go out to all the victims and their families ... The United States stands ready to assist Lebanon."