Lebanese honour the dead in ceremony a week after Beirut explosion
Death toll from blast is at 171, with at least 30 people still missing
Angry and grieving demonstrators on Tuesday read aloud the names of at least 171 people killed in last week's explosion at Beirut's port and called for the removal of Lebanon's president and other officials they blame for the tragedy.
Gathered near the site of the blast, some carried pictures of the victims as a large screen replayed footage of the mushroom cloud that rose over the city last Tuesday after highly explosive material stored for years detonated, injuring some 6,000 people and leaving hundreds of thousands displaced.
"HE KNEW" was written across an image of President Michel Aoun on a poster at the protest venue. Underneath, it read: "A government goes, a government comes; we will continue until the president and the parliament speaker are removed."
Reuters reported that the president and prime minister were warned in July about the warehoused ammonium nitrate, according to documents and senior security sources.
Aoun, who has pledged a swift and transparent investigation, tweeted on Tuesday: "My promise to all the pained Lebanese is that I will not rest until all the facts are known."
A week after the blast, residents of Beirut were picking up the pieces as search operations continued for 30 to 40 people still missing.
"Our house is destroyed and we are alone," said Khalil Haddad. "We are trying to fix it the best we can at the moment. Let's see, hopefully there will be aid and, the most important thing: hopefully the truth will be revealed."
'We need new blood'
Lebanese have not been placated by Monday's resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab's government and are demanding the removal of what they see as a corrupt ruling class to blame for the country's woes.
Diab blamed endemic graft for the explosion, the biggest in Beirut's history. The disaster compounded a deep financial crisis that has collapsed the currency, paralyzed the banking system and forced up prices.
"I said before that corruption is rooted in every juncture of the state, but I have discovered that corruption is greater than the state," he said, blaming the political elite for blocking reforms.
Talks with the International Monetary Fund have stalled amid a row between the government, banks and politicians over the scale of vast financial losses.
For many Lebanese, the explosion was the last straw in a protracted crisis over the collapse of the economy, corruption, waste and dysfunctional government.
The blast at the Beirut port left a crater more than 100 metres wide, the French ambassador said on Twitter following a visit to the site by French forensic scientists supporting an investigation into the disaster.
The Beirut port mirrors the sectarian power system in which the same politicians have dominated the country since the 1975-90 civil war. Each faction has its quota of directors at the port, the nation's main trade artery.
"It's a good thing that the government resigned. But we need new blood or it won't work," silversmith Avedis Anserlian told Reuters in front of his demolished shop.
Diab formed his government in January with the support of the powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah group and its allies, more than two months after Saad Hariri, who had enjoyed the backing of the West and Gulf states, quit as prime minister amid anti-government protests against corruption and mismanagement.
Aoun is required to consult with parliamentary blocs on who should be the next prime minister, and is obliged to designate the candidate with the most support. The president has yet to say when official consultations will take place.
Forming a government amid factional rifts has been daunting in the past. Now, with growing public discontent and the crushing financial crisis, it could be difficult to find someone willing to be prime minister.
World Health Organisation spokesperson Tarik Jarasevic said eight international medical teams were on the ground to support overwhelmed health facilities, under strain even before the blast due to the financial crisis and a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Ihsan Mokdad, a contractor, surveyed a gutted building in Gemmayze, a district a few hundred metres from the port.
"As the prime minister said, the corruption is bigger than the state. They're all a bunch of crooks. I didn't see one MP visit this area. MPs should have come here in large numbers to raise morale," he said.
Stockpile depleted after explosion
Meanwhile, the World Food Program (WFP) will send 50,000 tonnes of wheat flour to Lebanon, a United Nations report said on Tuesday. The port blast destroyed a silo where all the private stocks were held.
The report from the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the flour would be sent "to stabilize the national supply and ensure there is no food shortage in the country."
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A Reuters report on Friday said Lebanon's government held no strategic stockpile of grain before the explosion and all privately held stocks at the country's only grain silo were destroyed. Current flour reserves in Lebanon were estimated to cover market needs for six weeks.
Lebanon consumes between 35,000 to 40,000 tonnes of wheat per month. With no large grain silos to store wheat, sending the shipments as flour is more efficient, said Hesham Hassanein, a regional grain consultant based in Cairo.
France separately said it was also shipping 500 tonnes of wheat flour to Lebanon as a donation from its stocks.