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Lebanon mourns victims of devastating blast, searches for missing

Lebanon mourned on Thursday the victims of the most powerful blast to hit a country that has already been struck down by an economic crisis, as rescuers searched for those missing since the explosion flattened Beirut port and devastated the city.

French President Emmanuel Macron, making the first visit by a foreign leader since Tuesday’s blast which killed at least 145 people and injured 5,000, arrived in Beirut on Thursday along with specialist rescue personnel and equipment.

Dozens are still missing and up to a quarter of a million people were left without homes fit to live in after shockwaves smashed building facades, sucked furniture out into streets, and shattered windows several miles (kilometres) inland.

A security source said the death toll had reached 145, and officials said the figure was still likely to rise. Families gathered near the port seeking information on those missing, amid rising public anger at the authorities for allowing a huge quantity of highly explosive material to be stored for years in unsafe conditions in a port warehouse.

“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 Prime Minister Hassan Diab declared three days of mourning from Thursday after the explosion, the most devastating to hit the city still scarred by civil war three decades ago and reeling from a financial meltdown and surge in coronavirus cases.

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Economy Minister Raoul Nehme said Lebanon, with its banking system in crisis, a collapsing currency and one of the world’s biggest debt burdens, had “very limited” resources to deal with the disaster, which by some estimates may cost the nation $15 billion.

President Michel Aoun blamed the blast on 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilisers and bombs, that had been stored for six years at the port after it was seized. He promised to investigate and hold those responsible to account. The government has ordered port officials to be put under house arrest, ministerial sources told Reuters.

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