Beirut marks a week since catastrophic explosion which killed at least 171 people

11 August 2020, 17:56

People march in honor of the victims of the last week's explosion that killed over 150 people and devastated the city
People march in honor of the victims of the last week's explosion that killed over 150 people and devastated the city. Picture: PA

By Megan White

Beirut has marked a week since the catastrophic explosion that killed at least 171 people, injured thousands and plunged Lebanon into a political crisis.

Thousands of people marched near the capital city's devastated port, remembering those who died in the worst single blast to hit Lebanon.

They observed a minute of silence at 6.08pm local time, the moment on August 4 that thousands of tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded in the city's port where it had been stored for more than six years, apparently with the knowledge of top political and security officials.

Church bells tolled and mosque loudspeakers recited a call to prayer as hundreds marched through the streets of Gemayze carrying portraits of those who died.

"He knew," read a poster bearing President Michel Aoun's picture.

Mr Aoun, who has been in office since 2016, said he was first told of the dangerous stockpile nearly three weeks ago and immediately ordered military and security agencies to do "what was needed".

But he suggested his responsibility ended there, saying he had no authority over the port.

A candlelight vigil is planned for after dusk on Tuesday.

The explosion has fuelled outrage against top political leaders and security agencies, and led to the resignation of the government.

In the wake of the disaster, documents have come to light that show top Lebanese officials knew about the existence of the stockpile in the heart of Beirut near residential areas, and did nothing about it.

It is still not clear what caused the fire in a port warehouse that triggered the explosion of the chemicals, which created a shock wave so powerful it was felt as far away as the island of Cyprus more than 180 miles across the Mediterranean.

"From one minute to the next, the world changed for people in Beirut," said Basma Tabaja, deputy head of the International Committee of the Red Cross's delegation in Lebanon.

Lebanese protesters lift a gallows and placards berating politicians in Beirut
Lebanese protesters lift a gallows and placards berating politicians in Beirut. Picture: Getty

Outgoing health minister Hamad Hassan said the blast killed a total of 171 people, with between 30 and 40 still missing.

Of the injured, 1,500 needed special treatment while 120 remain in intensive care, he said.

The explosion damaged thousands of homes and offices in Beirut.

It comes amid an unprecedented economic and financial crisis facing Lebanon since late last year.

Efforts to form a new government got under way a day after Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced that they had resigned.

His government was formed after his predecessor, Saad Hariri, stepped down in October in response to anti-government demonstrations over endemic corruption.

It took months of bickering among the leadership factions before they settled on Mr Diab.

Lebanese have demanded an independent cabinet not backed by any of the political parties they blame for the mess they are in.

Many are also calling for an independent investigation into the port explosion, saying they had zero trust in a local probe.

Lebanese officials have rejected an international investigation.

The government, in the last decision it made before resigning, referred the case to the Supreme Judicial Council, Lebanon's top judicial body, which handles crimes infringing on national security as well as political and state security crimes.