BEIRUT - French President Emmanuel Macron called for urgent support for Lebanon where he arrived on Thursday, two days after a devastating blast ripped through Beirut, killing 145 people and generating a seismic shock that was felt across the region.
Dozens are still missing after Tuesday's blast at the port that injured 5,000 people and left up to a quarter of a million without homes fit to live in, hammering a nation already reeling from economic meltdown and a surge in coronavirus cases.
A security source said the death toll had reached 145, and officials said the figure was likely to rise.
Macron, making the first visit by a foreign leader since the explosion, promised to help organise international aid but said Lebanon's government must implement economic reforms and crack down on corruption.
"If reforms are not carried out, Lebanon will continue to sink," Macron said after being met at the airport by Lebanese President Michel Aoun. "What is also needed here is political change. This explosion should be the start of a new era."
Wearing a black tie in mourning, Macron toured the blast site and Beirut's shattered streets where angry crowds demanded an end to a "regime" of Lebanese politicians they blame for corruption and dragging Lebanon into disaster.
"I see the emotion on your face, the sadness, the pain. This is why I’m here," Macron told one group, promising to deliver "home truths" to Lebanon's leaders.
The government's failure to tackle a runaway budget, mounting debt and endemic corruption has prompted Western donors to demand reform. Gulf Arab states who once helped Lebanon have baulked at bailing out a nation they say is increasingly influenced by their rival Iran and its local ally Hezbollah.
One man on the street told Macron, "We hope this aid will go to the Lebanese people not the corrupt leaders." Another said that, while a French president had taken time to visit them, Lebanon's president had not.
At the port, destroyed by Tuesday's giant mushroom cloud and fireball, families sought news about the missing, amid mounting public anger at the authorities for allowing huge quantities of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, used in making fertilisers and bombs, to be stored there for years in unsafe conditions.
The government has ordered some port officials be put under house arrest and promised a full investigation.
"They will scapegoat somebody to defer responsibility," said Rabee Azar, a 33-year-old construction worker, speaking near the smashed remains of the port's grain silo, surrounded by other mangled masonry and flattened buildings.
With banks in crisis, a collapsing currency and one of the world's biggest debt burdens, Economy Minister Raoul Nehme said Lebanon had "very limited" resources to deal with the disaster, which by some estimates may have cost the nation up to $15 billion. He said the country needed foreign aid.
Offers of medical and other immediate aid have poured in, as officials have said hospitals, some heavily damaged in the blast, do not have enough beds and equipment.
Many Lebanese, who have lost jobs and watched savings evaporate in the financial crisis, say the blast is symptomatic of political cronyism and endemic corruption among the ruling elite.
'Crooks and liars'
"Our leaders are crooks and liars. I don't believe any investigation they will do. They destroyed the country and they're still lying to the people. Who are they kidding?" said Jean Abi Hanna, 80, a retired port worker whose home was damaged and daughter and granddaughter injured in the blast.
An official source familiar with preliminary investigations blamed "inaction and negligence" for the blast.
A Lebanese security source said the initial blaze that sparked the explosion was caused by welding work.
Some local media reported sightings of suspected Israeli drones or planes flying in the area shortly before the explosion and some Beirut residents said they saw missiles fired.
But officials have denied the incident was caused by any attack. Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, denied any involvement.
Veteran politician Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon's Druze community, called for an international investigation, saying he had "no trust" in the government to find out the truth.
The White House said the US government had still not ruled out the possibility that Tuesday's explosion was an attack.
People who felt the explosive force said they had witnessed nothing comparable in years of conflict and upheaval in Beirut, which was devastated by the 1975-1990 civil war and since then has experienced big bomb attacks, unrest and a war with Israel.
"All hell broke loose," said Ibrahim Zoobi, who works near the port. "I saw people thrown five or six metres."
Seismic tremors from the blast were recorded in Eilat on Israel's Red Sea coast, about 580 km (360 miles) away.
Operations have been paralysed at Beirut port, Lebanon's main route for imports needed to feed a nation of more than 6 million people, forcing ships to divert to smaller ports.