U.S. calls for credible probe into 'overwhelming' Beirut blast
BEIRUT (Reuters) - The United States called on Saturday for a transparent and credible investigation into the massive port blast in Beirut and said the country would only get financial support when Lebanese leaders commit to reforms.
The Aug. 4 blast, which the authorities say was caused by more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been unsafely stored at the port for years, killed 178 people, injured 6,000 and left 300,000 homeless.
"We can never go back to an era in which anything goes at the port or the borders of Lebanon that had to contribute to this situation," said David Hale, U.S. Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, after visiting the port.
He added that FBI agents would be arriving this weekend, at the invitation of Lebanon, to help investigate what led to the explosion.
The blast has fuelled anger at Lebanon's ruling politicians who were already facing criticism over a financial meltdown that has sunk the currency, demolished the value of savings and left depositors unable to withdraw their money.
"When we see Lebanese leaders committed to real change, change in word and deed, America and its international partners will respond to systemic reforms with sustained financial support," Hale said.
"The popular demand for real change could not be clearer."
President Michel Aoun has said a probe will look into whether the cause of the blast was negligence, an accident or "external interference".
"They won't do a thing in an investigation and the whole world knows that," said painter Mohammed Khodr, as he helped repair a restaurant damaged in the blast.
The heavily armed, Iran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah, which is listed as a terrorist organisation by the United States, said on Friday it would wait for results of the official Lebanese investigation into the blast.
But if it turns out to be an act of sabotage by neighbouring Israel then it would "pay an equal price", Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised address. Israel has denied any role in the explosion.
Nasrallah said his group was against an international investigation because its first purpose would be to "distance Israel from any responsibility for this explosion, if it had responsibility". He said the participation of the FBI in an investigation would serve the same purpose.
The explosion has pitched Lebanon into a new political vacuum since the resignation of the government, which had formed in January with backing of Hezbollah and its allies, including Aoun.
Lebanon's most senior Christian cleric said the Lebanese people had run out of patience with ruling politicians.
In his strongest intervention since the blast, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai said the church reserved the right to veto any proposals that further jeopardise Lebanon.
The Maronite church exercises political sway in a country where the head of state must be a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker a Shi'ite Muslim.
The United Nations launched a $565 million aid appeal on Friday. Priorities included stabilising the grain supply, U.N. humanitarian coordinator Najat Rochdi said on Saturday, after the explosion destroyed Lebanon's only port-based grain silo.
Hale said the U.S. administration had donated $18 million in relief since the blast and was prepared to work with Congress to pledge up to $30 million in additional funds to enable the flow of grain through the Port of Beirut on an urgent, interim basis.
(Additional reporting by Issam Abdallah; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Frances Kerry, Ros Russell and Alison Williams)
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