Canada’s foreign minister Thursday offered help in investigating the cause of the colossal port explosion that ravaged Beirut on August 4.
During a tour of the capital, Francois-Philippe Champagne stressed the need for a “credible investigation” into the blast that killed more than 180 people including two Canadians and wounded thousands.
“Canada would like, under the right circumstances, to contribute to the investigation,” he told Lebanese press.
The United States has already sent FBI investigators to assist at the request of Lebanese authorities, and France has opened its own probe.
Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun accepted the Canadian offer.
“We welcome the help that Canada wants to provide in the ongoing investigations over the explosion at the Beirut port,” Aoun told Champagne, according to the presidency.
The blast came after hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate had been left unsecured for several years at the port, despite repeated warnings of the dangers it posed.
Western powers, international bodies and Lebanese at home and abroad have called for an international probe into the blast, but Lebanese authorities have rejected this.
Champagne also called for “economic and political reforms” as he met Lebanon’s caretaker foreign minister Charbel Wehbe.
The Canadian minister toured Beirut neighbourhoods devastated by the blast, and met the families of the two Canadians who were killed in the disaster.
He said Canada would contribute an additional 8 million Canadian dollars ($6 million) to aid efforts to match the contribution of Canadians via a fund launched earlier this month.
Canada, which is home to a large Lebanese community, previously pledged 30 million Canadians dollars (more than $22 million) to help after the blast.
In Lebanon’s ongoing probe, Judge Fadi Sawan has so far issued arrest warrants for 16 people.
He is next week due to start questioning six others, including the director-general of land and maritime transport and four senior security officers responsible for the port.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun, ally of Israel’s arch-foe Hezbollah, seemed to leave the door open to eventual peace with the Jewish state, in an interview with French news channel BFMTV.
Lebanon has technically been at war with neighbouring Israel for decades, with tensions sporadically flaring in the border area in Lebanon’s south, stronghold of the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement.
Asked in an interview on BFMTV on Saturday whether Lebanon would be prepared to make peace with Israel, Aoun responded: “That depends. We have problems with Israel, we have to resolve them first.”
His statement came in the wake of an announcement Thursday that Israel would normalise relations with the United Arab Emirates, only the third Arab state to establish full diplomatic ties with Israel since its creation in 1948.
“It’s an independent country,” Aoun said of the UAE.
Aoun’s Christian Free Patriotic Movement has for years been politically allied with Hezbollah, enabling them to dominate parliament and the government, which resigned on Monday amid outrage over negligence that led to the deadly explosion at Beirut’s port that devastated the capital.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said on Friday of the Israel-UAE agreement that “it’s a betrayal of Jerusalem and the Palestinian people. It’s a knife in the back.”
A key point of contention between Lebanon and Israel concerns oil and gas resources in the eastern Mediterranean, where both countries have sought bids for exploration in their exclusive economic zones.
The maritime border between the countries is disputed.
Aoun’s interview was aired in the aftermath of the Beirut blast on August 4 that killed 177 people and wounded at least 6,500 more, with many blaming systemic corruption and negligence of the entrenched political class for the disaster.
Many Lebanese have demanded the ouster of the entire ruling class, dominated by ex-warlords from the country’s 1975-1990 civil war, including of Aoun.
Asked by the BFMTV journalist if he had thought of stepping down, Aoun said, “it’s impossible, there would be a vacuum”.
Lebanon’s president has rejected any international probe into the catastrophic Beirut port blast, saying a missile or negligence could have been responsible as rescuers desperately combed the rubble for survivors.
The entrenched ruling class has come under fire once again since Tuesday’s explosion, which killed at least 154 people and devastated swathes of the capital.
The revelation that a huge shipment of hazardous ammonium nitrate had languished for years in a warehouse in the heart of the capital served as shocking proof to many Lebanese of the rot at the core of their political system.
Even Lebanese President Michel Aoun admitted Friday that the “paralysed” system needed to be “reconsidered”.
He pledged “swift justice”, but rejected widespread calls for an international probe, telling a reporter he saw it as an attempt to “dilute the truth”.
“There are two possible scenarios for what happened: it was either negligence or foreign interference through a missile or bomb,” he said, the first time a top Lebanese official raised the possibility that the port had been attacked.
What ignited the massive shipment of the chemical remains unclear — officials have said work had recently begun on repairs to the warehouse, while others suspected fireworks stored either in the same place or nearby.
Near the site of the explosion, by the carcass of the port’s giant grain silos, rescue teams from France, Russia, Germany, Italy and other countries coordinated their search efforts.
The World Food Programme has promised food for affected families and wheat imports to replace lost stocks from the silos, and US President Donald Trump said he would join other leaders in a conference call Sunday to discuss coordinating international aid.
Four bodies were uncovered near the port’s control room Friday, where a significant number of people were expected to have been working at the time of the blast.
No one has been found alive.
“I am waiting to hear that you have been rescued alive, my dear,” tweeted Emilie Hasrouty, whose brother is among the missing.
“I am paralysed with fear.”
100,000 children homeless
At the port, reduced to an enormous scrapyard, excavators removed mangled shipping containers to clear a path for rescuers.
Civil defence teams anxiously watched a sniffer dog pace around a gap under a fallen crane.
Beirut has received a stream of international assistance since the blast.
On Friday, relief flights from Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates landed in Lebanon, following others from France, Kuwait, Qatar and Russia.
International police agency Interpol has said it will send a team of experts who are specialised in identifying victims.
The World Health Organization, meanwhile, called for $15 million to cover immediate health needs.
Lebanon’s hospitals, already strained by rising coronavirus cases and a severe economic crisis, were heavily damaged by the blast and overwhelmed by casualties.
Two days after the explosion, Lebanese were flocking to a 20-tent Russian field hospital newly established in the capital’s largest sports stadium.
The United Nations said up to 100,000 children are among the 300,000 people made homeless, including many who have been separated from their families.
‘We have nothing’
With destruction from the blast engulfing half of the capital and estimated to cost more than $3 billion, world leaders, advocacy groups and Lebanese have demanded an international probe to ensure impartiality.
But Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement said Friday the army should lead such a probe because it was “trusted” by all.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah denied accusations the Shiite party had been storing arms at the port, saying: “We have nothing in the port.”
Lebanon’s probe has so far led to 21 arrests, including the port’s general manager Hassan Koraytem, other customs officials and port engineers, a judicial source told AFP.
Dozens more were being interrogated by Lebanon’s military court, which is focusing on administrative and security officials at the port as well as government authorities who may have ignored warnings about explosive materials.
“The list of arrests will reach the top guys, who are now among the suspects,” the source said.
Lebanon’s central bank also ordered asset freezes for seven port and customs officials, an official and a banking source told AFP.
The measures did not dampen the anger in Beirut’s streets, where dozens of demonstrators scuffled with security forces firing tear gas late Thursday.
And volunteers clearing debris have chased out two government ministers who tried to visit devastated neighbourhoods with furious chants of “resign”.
An anti-government protest is planned for Saturday afternoon under the slogan, “Hang them by the gallows”.
Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun was due to convene the country’s top security council on Monday after days of angry protests over a deepening economic crisis.
Hundreds of demonstrators clashed with security forces at the weekend across the Mediterranean nation whose currency has collapsed amid the worst financial crisis since Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war.
Relative calm returned on Sunday evening, with protesters holding a peaceful rally in Beirut while dozens marched to a central square in the northern city of Tripoli, AFP reporters said.
That came after three nights of violence in which demonstrators, angered by sky-rocketing prices and the government’s apparent inability to tackle the crisis, had blocked highways and scuffled with security forces.
In Tripoli, young men attacked banks and shops and threw rocks at security forces who responded with rubber bullets and tear gas. Medical services reported dozens of injured.
The latest wave of demonstrations come almost eight months after the start of a mass protest movement over Lebanon’s crumbling economy and perceived official corruption.
The Lebanese lira plumbed new lows on Thursday, hitting 5,000 to the dollar for the first time.
The next day authorities vowed to pump greenbacks into the market to limit the rout. A Beirut money-changer told AFP on Monday that the dollar was selling for 4,200 liras.
Aoun’s office announced he was due to discuss the latest developments with the country’s top security body including ministers and military officials on Monday afternoon.
“President Aoun will convene the High Defence Council on Monday afternoon to study the security situation after the latest developments,” his office said on Twitter.
Lebanon’s economic crisis, which has led to soaring unemployment and forced the country to default on its sovereign debt for the first time, has sparked an outpouring of anger at a political elite seen as incompetent and nepotistic.
The government has put together a reform package to relaunch the economy and is in talks with the International Monetary Fund to attract desperately needed financial aid.
Inflation is expected to top 50 percent this year, in a country where 45 percent of the population live under the poverty line and over a third of the workforce are out of jobs.
The economy has been hit hard by years of war in neighbouring Syria.
On Saturday in Tripoli, protesters blocked trucks suspected of smuggling food products into Syria.
But the UN World Food Programme in statement said it had sent the convoy of 39 trucks carrying food aid bound for the war-torn country.