Lebanon Faces Looming Humanitarian Catastrophe, U.N. Says

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Lebanon is facing a looming humanitarian catastrophe, with dire shortages of food and medicine threatening to add to the suffering of a nation now reeling from the deadly explosion in the port city of Beirut, according to the United Nations.

The warning came as Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, raised the prospect that “external interference” might have played a role in Tuesday’s disaster.

“The cause has not been determined yet,” Mr. Aoun said on Friday morning. “There is a possibility of external interference through a rocket or bomb or other act.”

He said it was one of many lines of inquiry and did not offer evidence to support the suggestion. The president’s comments came amid swelling public disgust and anger directed at the government over chronic mismanagement of the country.

Hundreds of thousands of people remained displaced from their homes, with roughly one in 10 people in the city needing shelter. Thousands of wounded still need urgent care, but with three of the city’s largest hospitals in shambles, local officials were struggling to meet the demand.

And with the country’s largest grain depot destroyed, United Nations officials expressed concern about basic food security in the nation of nearly 7 million.

Families gathered amid the ruins of what used to be the entrance of the port, looking for information about the fate of loved ones as international rescue teams joined the search for scores of missing people.

The Lebanese Red Cross believes at least 100 people are still missing, most of whom had been working at the port.

The European Union has sent more than 300 rescue workers, sniffer dogs, vehicles and equipment to Lebanon. Search crews from Russia also joined the effort on Friday.

“Our experience shows that we can find people alive until up to 72, 75 or 80 hours after an explosion or an earthquake, so for now we are still in time and we cling on to this hope,” said Col. Vincent Tissier, head of the French team, told reporters.

The mother of Joseph Akiki, a 23-year-old electrician at the port, offered an emotional plea on Lebanese television for the safe return of her son.

“I will keep waiting because I know Joe Akiki is strong,” she said.

A few hours later, his lifeless body was pulled from the rubble, raising the official death toll to 154.

The powerful blast that leveled large swaths of the city is believed to have been caused by the detonation of some 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer stored in a warehouse at the port.

But before the explosion, there was a raging fire at the port. The government has not issued any public statements about the origin of the blaze.

Mr. Aoun said the investigation would look at how the explosive material entered the country and was stored, “whether the explosion was a result of negligence or an accident” and “the possibility that there was external interference.”

The French are assisting in the investigation, with a team in Beirut helping to collect evidence from the blast site.

Dominique Abbenanti, an official with the French forensic team, told The Associated Press that the explosion “appears to be an accident” but that it was too early to say for sure.

On Friday, Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Lebanon’s militant group Hezbollah, made his first public statement about the explosion, denying speculation that it may have been caused by a weapons cache belonging to the group.

“Several factions who oppose Hezbollah have started spreading lies that the hangar is a weapons, missile or ammunitions depot” for the group, Mr. Nasrallah said, adding that this was done in order to “terrorize the Lebanese people and paint Hezbollah as responsible for the disaster that befell them.”

He said Hezbollah had no weapons of any kind stored at the port.

An Israeli official said that the country’s intelligence services believe that the area in the port where the blast happened is full of Hezbollah facilities, but there is no conclusive evidence linking Hezbollah to this particular storage of ammonium nitrate.

Most video footage captured the port after the initial fire was already raging and then recorded the devastating explosion that obliterated the area.

While the government has directed attention to the port workers by announcing that it had detained 16 employees and questioned others, the public’s anger has focused on the government’s own inaction, incompetence and corruption.

Evidence that government officials knew of the dangers posed by the ammonium nitrate at the port for years and failed to act has only fueled already widespread disgust.

A day after France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, toured the wrecked streets of the city and was met with cheers, at least 58,000 people signed an online petition by Lebanese citizens on Wednesday to “place Lebanon under a French mandate for the next 10 years.”

“Lebanon’s officials have clearly shown a total inability to secure and manage the country,” the petition read. “With a failing system, corruption, terrorism and militia the country has just reached its last breath.”

For decades, the country’s political class has been dominated by an entrenched coterie of competing factions, with many of the country’s leaders having risen to prominence during Lebanon’s civil war, which raged from 1975 to 1990.

Lebanon’s economy was already in a state of crisis before this week’s disaster. Unemployment was soaring along with inflation. Basic services like trash collection and power were spotty, and corruption was endemic at government ministries. More than a million people live in poverty, according to the U.N., and a recent survey found half the population fearful they could not find enough to eat.

After the blast, the situation has grown even bleaker.

The World Health Organization said it had airlifted medicines and surgical supplies to support the country’s health care system.

Christian Lindmeier, a spokesman for the agency, told reporters in Geneva that there was rising concern that the catastrophe could worsen the coronavirus outbreak in Lebanon.

The explosion destroyed 17 containers filled with hundreds of thousands of masks, gowns, gloves and other personal protective equipment needed for medical workers battling the pandemic, Mr. Lindmeier said.

While the spread of the disease has been limited in Lebanon, which has reported fewer than 6,000 people infected with the virus and 70 deaths, the United Nations said it had recorded 255 new cases on Thursday, a daily high. Some of most active areas of community transmission were in neighborhoods devastated by the blast.

The W.H.O. and Unicef, the United Nations’ children’s agency, said they were bringing in replacement supplies of personal protective equipment from logistics hubs in Dubai but appealed for money to support relief efforts and the Covid-19 response.

At the same time, the U.N. World Food Program said that the destruction of the nation’s largest grain silo at the port “will exacerbate an already grim food security situation.”

Ronen Bergman and Nick Cumming-Bruce contributed reporting.

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