President Emmanuel Macron will travel to Lebanon Thursday, the first world leader to visit Beirut after the port blast that wreaked destruction across the capital, as France seeks to swiftly push reconstruction in its former colony.
The blast on Tuesday, blamed on an unsecured store of ammonium nitrate at the Beirut port, devastated entire neighborhoods, killed over 100 and left up to 300,000 without homes.
It was the latest blow to a country already reeling from an unprecedented economic crisis and political turbulence amid growing exasperation with the powerful elite across Lebanon’s different confessional communities.
“I will go to Beirut tomorrow to bring the Lebanese people a message of fraternity and solidarity from the French,” Macron wrote on Twitter.
“We will discuss the situation with the political authorities,” he added.
The president’s Elysee Palace office said Macron will “meet all political actors”, including President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Hassan Diab.
Both sides will be hoping the visit goes more smoothly than a trip last month by France’s top diplomat Jean-Yves Le Drian who scolded Lebanon’s political elite for being too “passive” in the face of an economic crisis compounded by the outbreak.
In the aftermath of that visit, Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti resigned in protest at his government’s lack of crisis management.
– ‘Strength to recover’ –
Beirut governor Marwan Aboud told AFP the estimated cost of the damage from the explosion was between $3.0 billion and $5.0 billion.
France on Wednesday sent three planes to Beirut loaded with rescuers, medical equipment and a mobile clinic.
Two military planes were to leave Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris with 55 search and rescue personnel on board and 25 tonnes of medical supplies, it said.
A dozen emergency personnel will also be sent to Beirut shortly “to reinforce hospitals in the Lebanese capital,” said the presidency.
Le Drian later said a third, private humanitarian plane would leave from Marseille in the south of France with teams of medical workers who would be “immediately operational”.
He said France will continue mobilising assistance as needed.
“For now, it is time to ensure international solidarity” with Lebanon, he told the LCI broadcaster, adding the destruction of silos holding grain in the blast was a particular concern.
“There will also be a food need that is indispensable because the grain silos themselves exploded.”
The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization expressed fear Wednesday that the destruction of the silos would result in critical flour shortages.
The 55 rescuers being deployed from Paris Wednesday are specialists in post-disaster rubble clearing and rescue, said the Elysee.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex was to gather ministers later Wednesday responsible for coordinating aid to Beirut.
“As always, France will be there to show the solidarity and friendship that it has maintained with the Lebanese people for decades,” he said.
Le Drian reaffirmed the message from his own Beirut trip that reforms were essential for Lebanon to move on.
“The country has the necessary strength to recover — what is needed is that a certain number of reforms are put in place.”