PARIS – As stunned Lebanese rescuers counted the dead and painted the rubble for signs of life a day after a huge explosion shattered swathes of Beirut, countries near and far on Wednesday promised the country, already caught in the trap of a deep economic crisis, would not be left alone.
The explosion in the capital’s port that killed at least 100 people and injured thousands, with shock waves crashing deep into the city, stunned the world. From Australia to Indonesia, via Europe and the United States, countries have prepared to send aid and search teams.
Reflecting both the gravity of the disaster and France’s privileged relations with its former protectorate, French President Emmanuel Macron was due to visit Lebanon on Thursday. Paris wasted no time in sending two planes of specialists, rescuers and supplies to Beirut on Wednesday.
The explosion appears to have been started by a fire that triggered a huge amount of ammonium nitrate fertilizer stored in the harbor, which exploded under the force of a moderately strong earthquake.
The European Union was activating its civil protection system to bring together emergency workers and equipment from across the bloc of 27 nations. The European commission said the plan was to urgently dispatch more than 100 firefighters with vehicles, sniffer dogs and equipment designed to find trapped people in urban areas.
The Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Poland and the Netherlands are participating in the effort with other countries expected to join. The EU’s satellite mapping system will be used to help the Lebanese authorities determine the extent of the damage.
Cyprus, where Tuesday’s explosion was felt about 180 kilometers from Beirut, was sending emergency personnel and sniffer dogs.
Help was also coming from closer to home. Iraq was sending six trucks of medical supplies and an emergency medical team to help bolster Lebanon’s overburdened health system, and Egypt and Jordan were supplying field hospitals.
Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country, officially at war with Lebanon, was ready to offer to help the Lebanese “from human to human”.
Indonesian UN peacekeepers already stationed in Lebanon were assisting with the evacuation effort, and Australia said it was giving A $ 2 million ($ 1.4 million) in aid humanitarian.
But aid pledges have raised new questions for a country whose economic and political crisis, combined with rampant corruption, has made donors suspicious in recent years.
Macron’s visit could lead to difficult times.
During a visit to Lebanon less than two weeks ago, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian made it clear that France, Beirut’s unwavering economic support, would refuse support that was not directly aimed at the Lebanese people, until “credible and serious reform measures” pass way.
Whether the French president would bypass his country’s forbidden zone and offer more than emergency aid was unclear. Around $ 11 billion was pledged to Lebanon at a Paris conference in 2018 – but on condition that reforms are undertaken.
French workers sent to Lebanon on Wednesday include members of a special unit trained to intervene at damaged industrial sites. Among their tasks, it will be to identify the particular risks resulting from the explosion, declared the spokesman of the national civil security Michael Bernier.
The World Health Organization is airlifting medical supplies to Lebanon to cover up to 1,000 trauma procedures and up to 1,000 surgeries, at the request of the country’s Minister of Health.
WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said in an email that the supplies were to be flown from a “humanitarian center” in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and are expected to arrive later Wednesday.
Pope Francis offered prayers for the Lebanese, while in Paris a special vigil was to take place Wednesday evening in the Maronite Notre-Dame church. The Eiffel Tower will darken at midnight in mourning.
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The explosion also killed an Australian and injured several foreign nationals, including 21 Bangladeshi sailors, at least 21 French, an Indonesian and an Italian. The Australian and German embassies were damaged. The Paris prosecutor’s office has opened an investigation into the explosion, as is customary when French citizens are injured abroad.
Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Lorne Cook in Brussels, Jamey Keaten in Geneva and offices around the world have contributed.