BEIRUT—Lebanon mourned on Thursday the victims of the most powerful blast to hit a country that has already been struck down by an economic crisis, as rescuers searched for those missing since the explosion flattened Beirut port and devastated the city.
French President Emmanuel Macron, making the first visit by a foreign leader since Tuesday’s blast which killed at least 145 people and injured 5,000, arrived in Beirut on Thursday along with specialist rescue personnel and equipment.
Dozens are still missing and up to a quarter of a million people were left without homes fit to live in after shockwaves smashed building facades, sucked furniture out into streets and shattered windows several miles (kilometres) inland.
A security source said the death toll had reached 145, and officials said the figure was still likely to rise.
Families gathered near the port seeking information on those missing, amid rising public anger at the authorities for allowing a huge quantity of highly explosive material to be stored for years in unsafe conditions in a port warehouse.
“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.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab declared three days of mourning from Thursday after the explosion, the most devastating to hit the city still scarred by civil war three decades ago and reeling from a financial meltdown.
Economy Minister Raoul Nehme said Lebanon, with its banking system in crisis, a collapsing currency and one of the world’s biggest debt burdens, had “very limited” resources to deal with the disaster, which by some estimates may cost the nation $15 billion.
President Michel Aoun blamed the blast on 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilisers and bombs, that had been stored for six years at the port after it was seized. He promised to investigate and hold those responsible to account.
The government has ordered port officials to be put under house arrest, ministerial sources told Reuters.
‘Crooks and Liars’
But Lebanese, who have lost jobs and watched savings evaporate in the financial crisis, blamed politicians in charge during decades of state corruption and bad governance.
“Our leaders are crooks and liars. I don’t believe any investigation they will do. They destroyed the country and they’re still lying to the people. Who are they kidding?” said Jean Abi Hanna, 80, a retired port worker whose home was damaged and daughter and granddaughter injured in the blast.
An official source familiar with preliminary investigations blamed the incident on “inaction and negligence”, saying “nothing was done” to remove hazardous material.
Some local media reported sightings of drones or planes flying in the area shortly before the explosion and some Beirut residents said they saw missiles fired. But officials have denied the incident was the result of any attack.
A Lebanese security source said the initial blaze that sparked the explosion was caused by welding work.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said the U.S. government had not ruled out the possibility that Tuesday’s explosion was an attack and was still gathering intelligence.
People who felt the explosive force said they had witnessed nothing comparable in years of conflict and upheaval in Beirut, which was devastated by the 1975-1990 civil war and since then has experienced big bomb attacks, unrest and a war with Israel.
“First we heard one sound. Seconds later there was a big explosion. All hell broke loose,” said Ibrahim Zoobi, who works near the port. “I saw people thrown five or six metres.”
He said those in the port district “were burned or charred”.
Seismic tremors from the blast were recorded as far away as Eilat on Israel’s Red Sea coast, about 580 km (360 miles) south of Beirut.
Health officials reported hospitals were running out of beds and equipment to attend to the injured.
Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud told Al Hadath TV total losses from the blast could reach $15 billion, including losses to businesses amid the broader fallout.
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 be diverted to smaller ports.
The World Bank said it would work with Lebanon’s partners to mobilise public and private financing for reconstruction. It was unclear whether this would affect Lebanon’s difficult negotiations with the International Monetary Fund.
By Samia Nakhoul and Ellen Francis