EU President Michelle travels to Beirut for a conference on Saturday

President of the European Council Charles Michel will head to Beirut on Saturday (8 August), ahead of a major donors conference to raise funds for the blast-damaged Lebanese capital Beirut.

“Shocked and saddened, we stand with all those affected and will provide help,” Michel tweeted, announcing meetings with President Michel Aoun, parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Hassan Diab.

After his trip, Michel will take part in a videoconference organised by French President Emmanuel Macron to gather support for rescue operations. Michel and the president of the commission, Ursula von der Leyen, had written to the 27 member states urging them to step up support for Lebanon.

At Sunday’s videoconference, the EU executive will be represented by the commissioner for crisis management and humanitarian aid, Janez Lenarcic.

The European Commission says it has coordinated the dispatch of 300 rescue experts to Beirut and has made available €33 million for initial emergency needs, including medical aid.

The European Union announced Thursday (6 August) that it had released €33 million to finance initial emergency aid for Lebanon and mobilised material resources, including an Italian hospital ship, to help relief efforts in Beirut, devastated Tuesday by two explosions.

First arrests made

Rescuers combed through the rubble of Beirut port Friday in a search for survivors watched breathlessly by relatives of the missing, with authorities making five new arrests in a high-profile probe.

The shock has turned to anger in Lebanon since Tuesday’s colossal explosion killed at least 154 people and devastated swathes of the capital, with security forces firing tear gas at demonstrators who gathered near parliament late Thursday (6 August).

The revelation that a huge shipment of hazardous ammonium nitrate fertiliser 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.

What ignited the 2,750 tonnes of fertiliser is still unclear. Officials have said work had recently begun on repairs to the warehouse, while others suspected fireworks which were stored either in the same place or nearby.

Near the seat of the explosion, by the carcass of the port’s giant grain silos, rescue teams from France, Germany, Italy and other countries coordinated their search efforts.

100,000 children homeless

At the port, Russian rescuers were ankle-deep in corn, as excavators removed mangled shipping containers. Civil defence teams anxiously watched a sniffer dog as he paced around a gap under a fallen crane. An eerie sense of calm filled the once-bustling port, reduced to an enormous scrapyard.

The only sounds are those of heavy machinery cutting through forests of twisted iron rods and mountains of concrete rubble to clear a path for the rescuers.

Beirut has received a stream of international assistance since the blast. French President Emmanuel Macron was the first world leader to touch down in Lebanon on Thursday, where he pressed officials to enact deep reform ahead of an aid conference planned in the coming days.

Lebanon mourned on Thursday (6 August) 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.

The World Food Programme said it would be allocating food parcels to affected families and boosting wheat imports to replace lost stocks from the port’s disembowelled silos. The World Health Organization, meanwhile, called for €12.7 million to cover immediate emergency trauma and humanitarian health needs.

Lebanon’s hospitals, already strained by a wave of coronavirus cases and a severe economic crisis, were severely damaged by the blast and have been overwhelmed by casualties.

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.

Circle of suspects widens

With destruction from the blast extending over half of the capital and the damage expected to cost more than €2.5 billion, world leaders have backed calls from ordinary Lebanese for those responsible to be held accountable.

In his snap visit on Thursday, Macron stressed the need for an international investigation after meeting Lebanese politicians, including representatives of the powerful Shiite Hezbollah movement, whose leader Hassan Nasrallah was scheduled to speak later on Friday.

Lebanese authorities had announced their own probe into Tuesday’s explosion and by Friday afternoon had detained 21 people, including customs officials and port engineers, a judicial source told AFP.

The port’s general manager Hassan Koraytem was among them, the source added.

Dozens more were being interrogated by Lebanon’s military court, which is focusing its efforts on administrative and security officials at the port as well as government authorities who may have ignored warnings about explosive materials at the port.

The measures did not dampen the anger in Beirut’s streets, where dozens of demonstrators scuffled with security forces late Thursday, drawing a volley of tear gas. Lebanon’s leadership was already deeply unpopular, with a wave of mass protests that erupted in October last year only abating in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

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