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Beirut blast survivors yell "revolution" over devastation, city corruption

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French President Emmanuel Macron has promised angry crowds in Lebanon’s shattered capital that aid to rebuild the city would not go to “corrupt hands” and urged the political authorities to carry out reforms.

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Macron travelled straight to Beirut after the biggest blast in its history tore through the city, killing at least 145 people, injuring 5,000, leaving many more thousands homeless and a swathe of the capital in tatters.

After visiting the port at the epicentre of the blast, Macron was greeted by crowds shouting chants against the political establishment and endemic corruption.

“I guarantee you, this aid will not go to corrupt hands,” said Macron, who was wearing a black tie in mourning.

He 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.”

“I will talk to all political forces to ask them for a new pact. I am here today to propose a new political pact to them,” he said, shaking hands on roads strewn with rubble and flanked by shops with windows blown out.

Residents, shop owners and volunteers have led clean-up efforts in the popular street of cafes and restaurants, where the blast ripped out balconies and smashed store facades.

Macron was applauded by the crowds in the neighbourhood, in a mainly Christian part of the capital, with chants of “Vive la France! Help us! You are our only hope!”.

Some also chanted against President Michel Aoun, who is a Maronite Christian under Lebanon’s political arrangement of dividing powerful positions between sects.

Macron then headed to the Baabda presidential palace, where he was due to hold talks with Aoun, Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who is a Sunni Muslim, and Nabih Berri, the speaker of parliament who is a Shi’ite.

France has long sought to support its former colony and has sent emergency aid since the blast. But it has joined other Western nations in pressing for reforms to root out corruption, cut spiralling budget spending and reduce a mountain of debt.

Shortly after landing in Beirut, Macron said France’s solidarity with the Lebanese people was unconditional, but said he wanted to deliver some “home truths” to political figures.

“Beyond the blast, we know the crisis here is serious, it involves the historic responsibility of leaders in place,” Macron told reporters after being met at the airport by Aoun.

“If reforms are not carried out, Lebanon will continue to sink,” he said, citing reforms to the energy sector, as Lebanon suffers acute power shortages, and public tenders, as well as measures to fight corruption.

Officials blamed the blast on a huge stockpile of a highly explosive material stored for years in unsafe conditions at Beirut port. The government ordered some port workers arrested.

Many Lebanese, who have lost jobs and watched savings evaporate in a financial crisis, say the blast was symptomatic of neglect and corruption in the political system.

How the blast chemicals arrived in Beirut

The chemicals that went up in the blast arrived in the Lebanese capital seven years ago on a leaky Russian-leased cargo ship that, according to its captain, should never have stopped there.

Boris Prokoshev, 70, was captain of the Rhosus in 2013 when he says the owner told him to make an unscheduled stop in Lebanon to pick up extra cargo.

Prokoshev said the ship was carrying 2,750 tonnes of a highly combustible chemical from Georgia to Mozambique when the order came to divert to Beirut on its way through the Mediterranean.

The captain, speaking from his home in the Russian town of Sochi, told Reuters the crew were asked to load some heavy road equipment and take it to Jordan’s Port of Aqaba before resuming their journey onto Africa, where the ammonium nitrate was to be delivered to an explosives manufacturer.

But the ship was never to leave Beirut, having tried and failed to safely load the additional cargo before becoming embroiled in a lengthy legal dispute over port fees.

Lawyers acting for some creditors accused the ship’s owner of abandoning the vessel and succeeded in having it arrested. Months later, for safety reasons, the ammonium nitrate was unloaded and put in a dock warehouse.

The ship might have succeeded in leaving Beirut, had it managed to load the additional cargo.

The crew had stacked the equipment, including excavators and road-rollers, on top of the doors to the cargo hold which held the ammonium nitrate below, according to the ship’s Ukrainian boatswain, Boris Musinchak. But the hold doors buckled.

“The ship was old and the cover of the hold bent,” Musinchak said by ‘phone. “We decided not to take risks.”

The captain and three crew spent 11 months on the ship while the legal dispute dragged on, without wages and with only limited supplies of food. Once they left, the ammonium nitrate was unloaded.

Prokoshev identified the ship’s owner as Russian businessman Igor Grechushkin.

Cypriot police questioned Grechushkin at his home in Cyprus on Thursday, a security source said. A Cyprus police spokesman said an individual, whom he did not name, had been questioned at the request of Interpol Beirut in relation to the cargo.

Lebanon’s cabinet has placed all Beirut port officials who have overseen storage and security since 2014 under house arrest.

The head of Beirut port and the head of customs said that several letters were sent to the judiciary asking for the material be removed, but no action was taken.

According to Prokoshev, the ship had been leaking but was seaworthy when it sailed into Beirut in September 2013. However, he said Lebanese authorities paid little attention to the ammonium nitrate, which had been stacked in the hull in large sacks.

“I feel sorry for the people (killed or injured in the blast). But local authorities, the Lebanese, should be punished. They did not care about the cargo at all,” he said.

The abandoned Rhosus sank where she was moored in Beirut harbour, according to a May, 2018 email from a lawyer to Prokoshev, which said it had gone down “recently”.

-with AAP

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