Tue, 29 Sep 2020

Lebanese Commemorate Victims of Beirut Blast

Voice of America
12 Aug 2020, 04:05 GMT+10

Church bells rang and mosques called the faithful to prayer Tuesday as a broken Beirut marked one week since the catastrophic blast that left thousands of people dead and injured and devastated the heart of the city.

A moment of silence at 15:09 GMT, the time the blast occurred, was among several events that were planned to observe the explosion.

Demonstrations continued for a third straight day after the government's resignation Monday. Hundreds of protesters gathered again outside the parliament building, chanting slogans against the political leaders and throwing stones. Security forces, in turn, fired tear gas.

Behind-the-scene efforts began Tuesday to form a new government. Many citizens are demanding an independent Cabinet not supported by any of the political parties that have been accused of mismanaging the country's affairs. Many Lebanese also are calling for an independent investigation into the blast because they don't trust a probe by local authorities.

Lebanese officials have dismissed calls for an international investigation. Before it resigned, the government referred the case Monday to the Supreme Judicial Council, the country's highest judicial body.

Lebanon's prime minister announced his government's resignation Monday night in the aftermath of last week's devastating explosion at the Port of Beirut and the public protests that followed.

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"We want to open the door to national rescue, a rescue that the Lebanese will participate in achieving," Prime Minister Hassan Diab said in a televised speech. "Therefore, today I announce the resignation of this government. May God protect Lebanon."

Diab formed his government in January after a protracted political crisis.

He blamed the country's myriad problems on the political elite, who have ruled Lebanon since the end of the civil war nearly 30 years ago. He said they have caused political and economic devastation and brought about last week's tragedy. He called for accountability.

"I said before that corruption is rooted in every juncture of the state, but I have discovered that corruption is greater than the state," Diab said.

After addressing the nation, Diab went to the presidential palace where President Michel Aoun accepted the government's resignation.

Diab's government will now be a caretaker until new elections are held. He did not say when that would be, but he previously said he would draft legislation calling for early elections. 

The decision comes after several ministers and lawmakers resigned. But calls continued in mass demonstrations over the weekend for the entire government to step down.

Ahead of Diab's announcement, protesters gathered in central Beirut near the parliament building. There were clashes with security forces, and the Lebanese Red Cross reported transporting seven injured people to the hospital and treating nearly 40 others on the scene.

The foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan met with Aoun and other senior officials Tuesday during a visit to Lebanon. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said his country is "fully prepared" to support Lebanese citizens.

The massive blast, which killed at least 160 people, injured thousands and left more than 250,000 homeless, has been blamed on the detonation of 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate that had been improperly stored for six years at the Port of Beirut.

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the voices of the Lebanese people must be heard.

"It is important that a credible and transparent investigation determine the cause of the explosion and bring about the accountability demanded by the Lebanese people," he told a humanitarian briefing on Lebanon.

His spokesperson said the U.N. stands ready to assist with an investigation, should the Lebanese authorities request it.

International solidarity with Lebanon has been strong and immediate.

On Sunday, at a donor's conference co-hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron and the United Nations, world leaders pledged nearly $300 million to help the country - already reeling from political, economic and health crises - recover from the explosion.

Ahead of the conference, the United States made an initial pledge of $17 million in disaster aid, including food and medical supplies.

Rebuilding is expected to cost billions of dollars. Economists have forecast the damage could erase up to 25% of the country's economic output.

U.N. agencies are also on the ground helping with food assistance, emergency shelter materials and search and rescue teams.

"The scale of the loss is so vast, it is likely every single person in Lebanon has been touched by this event," said Najat Rochdi, U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator for Lebanon.

A top priority is getting a small part of the port operational to bring in food, medical supplies and construction materials.

"Working with the Lebanese army, we believe we can clear part of that site and have it operational in two to three weeks," U.N. World Food Program Chief David Beasley said from Beirut.

Of particular concern is the country's supply of grain and wheat, which was largely destroyed in silos housed at the port. The U.N. says the country has only about a month's supply left before it is faced with serious food shortages.

The World Food Program will send 50,000 tons of wheat flour to Lebanon, according a U.N. report released Tuesday. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in the report that the flour would "stabilize the national supply and ensure there is no food shortage in the country."

About 80% of Lebanon's food is imported.

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