Lebanon: diplomatic flurry in blast-hit Beirut as aid effort expands

FBI to join investigation of port explosion at the invitation of Lebanese officials, US diplomat David Hale says

French Defence Minister Florence Parly (C), mask-clad due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, speaks with a ranking Lebanese army brigadier general (L) upon disembarking from the French Navy amphibious assault helicopter carrier Tonnerre at the port of Lebanon's capital Beirut on August 14, 2020.  / AFP / JOSEPH EID
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Top officials from the US, France and Iran criss-crossed Beirut on Friday to supervise growing aid efforts and weigh in on Lebanon's political future, following the deadly port explosion blamed on state corruption.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran, which backs Lebanon's powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah, met officials in the capital ahead of a speech by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah on Friday evening.

Mr Zarif's visit coincided with those of the top career diplomat of Iran's arch-foe the United States, David Hale, and French Defence Minister Florence Parly, who also met with Lebanese leaders and civil society representatives.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe, left, speaks during a joint press conference with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif, outside the Lebanese foreign ministry damaged by last week's explosion that his the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Aug. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Both Mr Hale and Ms Parly have joined calls from the international community for a reform-oriented government that would co-ordinate aid flooding into the crisis-hit Mediterranean country after the resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab's cabinet on Monday.

Mr Zarif said it was for the Lebanese to decide what government they wanted.

"Others should not condition their aid on any change in Lebanon during this emergency situation," he said.

Mr Zarif joined Lebanese officials in rejecting an international probe into the blast, saying "Lebanon, as an independent country, must be in charge of the investigation".

Workers of the port of Lebanon's capital Beirut unload cargo from the French Navy amphibious assault helicopter carrier Tonnere on August 14, 2020.  / AFP / JOSEPH EID

Protesters filled the streets and clashed with security forces in the days after the August 4 explosion, blaming their political leaders for the negligence they say led to the disaster that killed at least 177 people and wounded at least 6,500.

The blast happened when a huge stock of hazardous materials stocked in a warehouse in the heart of the capital for years exploded, despite repeated warnings of the risk it could cause.

The explosion revived a street protest movement that had first erupted in October last year against government corruption and a lingering economic crisis.

Mr Diab's successor must be named by President Michel Aoun, the target of increasing vitriol from protesters, after consultations with parliamentary blocs representing Lebanon's longstanding political parties – the very ones that the protesters want to see gone.

Mr Hale and Ms Parly met President Aoun separately on Friday and both have called for a government that reflects the will of the people and one that would implement reform.

Overseeing the distribution of aid from the helicopter carrier Tonnerre, which docked in Beirut with food and construction materials, Ms Parly said she urged Mr Aoun president to speed up the process of government formation.

Ms Parly said the next government must have a "mission" and "for a limited period of time be in charge of carrying out far-reaching reforms".

A handout picture provided by the Lebanese photo agency Dalati and Nohra on August 14, 2020 shows US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale meeting with Lebanese president Michel Aoun at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut. === RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HO / DALATI AND NOHRA" - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS ===

Mr Hale echoed her, calling for a government "that reflects and responds to the will of the people and genuinely commits and acts for real change".

Mr Aoun said he was in talks with top political blocs before formally starting parliamentary consultations to name a new premier.

The new administration will take power in a country that was already battered by crisis before the explosion, with crushing economic woes and widespread discontent at official corruption and ineptitude.

Lebanese authorities named judge Fadi Sawan, with a reputation for independence and integrity according to judicial sources, to lead investigations into the explosion.

But he will not himself question current and former ministers on the ammonium nitrate that was stocked at the port.

They will instead be referred to a special judicial body specialised in questioning government officials.

On Thursday, Mr Hale said the US Federal Bureau of Investigations would join the probe "at the invitation" of Lebanese authorities.

France, which on Friday confirmed that two French citizens were among the 177 people killed in the blast, has opened its own enquiry.

UN experts have called for a prompt and independent investigation into the explosion, expressing concern at the "impunity" they say Lebanese officials enjoy.

Lebanese authorities have rejected an international probe.

Rescue workers continued to recover the remains of those killed in the blast at the devastated Beirut port on Friday.

Relatives of three firefighters from the same family, who had tried to put out a fire that flared before the blast, were told that the remains of two of them had been identified by DNA analysis.

"I don't have words to describe the fire that consumes us. Imagine getting to the point of being happy to have found the remains of two among you," said Antonella Hitti on Facebook, after learning that the remains of her brother Najib, 27, and her cousin Charbel, 22, had been identified.

"We're not organising funerals before finding Charbel Karam," the third missing firefighter from the family, relative Mayane Nassif told AFP.