Four day ultimatum over Beirut ‘crime’
Lebanon's government has delivered a four day ultimatum to an investigative committee tasked with determining who was responsible for the cataclysmic explosion at Beirut's port on Wednesday.
Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe told French radio authorities are determined to quickly get to the bottom of the "crime of negligence".
"This morning, a decision was taken to create an investigative committee which in four days maximum must provide a detailed report on responsibility - how, who, what, where? There will be judicial decisions," he told Europe 1 radio.
"It is serious, and we take it seriously," Wehbe said.
"Those responsible for this horrible crime of negligence will be punished by a committee of judges," he added.
GERMAN DIPLOMAT CONFIRMED DEAD
The death toll for the blast had reached 137 by Thursday but was expected to rise significantly with dozens missing and more than 5000 wounded.
The governor of Beirut says losses are estimated at $10 billion to $15 billion and more than 300,000 had lost their homes.
A German diplomat was confirmed to have been killed at home in her apartment in the blast. Meanwhile French President Emmanuel Macron jetted in and pledged to co-ordinate international rescue efforts.
The Lebanese government has already called for those responsible for storing around 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a substance used in fertilisers and explosives, in the port of the capital, to be placed under house arrest.
"It is an accident … preliminary reports indicate it is mismanagement of explosive products. This is a very serious neglect that continued for six years,' said Wehbe.
Early reports suggest the normally inert substance may have been ignited by nearby fireworks or reports of welding work being undertaken nearby.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab and President Michel Aoun have promised to put the culprits behind bars, but trust in institutions is low and few on the streets of the Lebanese capital hold out hope of an impartial inquiry.
Human Rights Watch on Thursday supported mounting calls for an international probe as the only credible option.
"An independent investigation with international experts is the best guarantee that victims of the explosion will get the justice they deserve," the watchdog said.
RELATED: Shocking video captures blast horror
WOMAN IN LABOUR BEFORE BLAST
In Beirut on Thursday amid a major hunt for survivors involving rescue dogs and workers flown in from around the world at short notice, shock over the blast turned to fury at authorities who had allowed the explosive substance to be stored in the city.
Satellite images showed the scale of the devastation with a huge crater blown into the sea wall filled with water. Images taken one day apart showed the surrounding area flattened from the apocalyptic scale of the explosion, which experts estimate was one fifth the size of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb.
Shock video shows a pregnant woman preparing to give birth with her husband filming as the blast blows in the windows at St George's hospital in Beirut.
Husband George Khaisser told the BBC: "We just heard the sound, everything was shattering around the glass the instruments, everything … there was nothing.
"I was afraid that she might be hurt or the baby was hurt. She was all covered with glass. She wasn't just in shock, there was no medicine," he said.
Ninety minutes after the explosion their healthy baby boy, George was born.
However the miraculous story was tempered by other tragic scenes emerging from the rubble including reports of firefighters pictured entering the warehouse who have not been seen since.
'WE'RE TRYING TO FIX THIS COUNTRY'
In Beirut's beloved bar districts, hundreds of young Lebanese ditched beers for brooms to sweep debris in the absence of a state-sponsored clean-up operation following a deadly blast.
"What state?" scoffed 42-year-old Melissa Fadlallah, a volunteer cleaning up the hard-hit Mar Mikhail district of the Lebanese capital.
Wearing plastic gloves and a mask, Fadlallah tossed a shard of glass as long as her arm at the door of the state electricity company's administrative building that looms over the district.
"For me, this state is a dump - and on behalf of yesterday's victims, the dump that killed them is going to stay a dump," she told AFP.
"We're trying to fix this country. We've been trying to fix it for nine months but now we're going to do it our way," said Fadlallah.
"If we had a real state, it would have been in the street since last night cleaning and working. Where are they?"
A few civil defence workers could be seen examining building structures but they were vastly outnumbered by young volunteers flooding the streets to help.
In small groups, they energetically swept up glass beneath blown-out buildings, dragging them into plastic bags.
Others clambered up debris-strewn stairwells to offer their homes to residents who had spent the previous night in the open air.
"We're sending people into the damaged homes of the elderly and handicapped to help them find a home for tonight," said Husam Abu Nasr, a 30-year-old volunteer.
"We don't have a state to take these steps, so we took matters into our own hands," he said.
Towns across the country have offered to host Beirut families with damaged homes and the Maronite Catholic patriarchate announced it would open its monasteries and religious schools to those needing shelter.
Food was quickly taken care of, too: plastic tables loaded with donated water bottles, sandwiches and snacks were set up within hours.
"I can't help by carrying things, so we brought food, water, chocolate and moral support," said Rita Ferzli, 26.
"I think everyone should be here helping, especially young people. No one should be sitting at home - even a smile is helping right now."
Business owners swiftly took to social media, posting offers to repair doors, paint damaged walls or replace shattered windows for free.
Abdo Amer, who owns window company Curtain Glass, said he was moved to make such an offer after narrowly surviving the blast.
"I had driven by the port just three minutes earlier," the 37-year-old said. He offered to replace windows for half the price, but said he was fixing some for free given the devastating situation for many families following the Lebanese currency's staggering devaluation in recent months.
"I've gotten more than 7,000 phone calls today and I can't keep up," said the father of four.
"You think the state will take up this work? Actually, let them step down and leave." Outrage at the government was palpable among volunteers, many of whom blamed government officials for failing to remove explosive materials left at the port for years.
"They're all sitting in their chairs in the AC while people are wearing themselves out in the street," said Mohammad Suyur, 30, as he helped sweep on Wednesday.
"The last thing in the world they care about is this country and the people who live in it." He said activists were preparing to reignite the protest movement that launched in October.
"We can't bear more than this. This is it. The whole system has got to go," he said.
Originally published as Four day ultimatum over Beirut 'crime'