BEIRUT (Dispatches) -- Lebanon’s president said on Friday its investigation into the biggest blast in Beirut’s history would examine whether it was caused by a bomb or other external interference, as residents sought to rebuild shattered homes and lives.
Rescuers sifted rubble in a race to find anyone still alive after Tuesday’s port explosion that killed 154 people, injured 5,000, destroyed a swathe of the Mediterranean city and sent seismic shockwaves around the region.
"The cause has not been determined yet. There is a possibility of external interference through a rocket or bomb or other act,” President Michel Aoun told local media.
Aoun, who had previously said explosive material was stored unsafely for years at the port, said the investigation would also weigh if the blast was due to negligence or an accident. Twenty people had been detained so far, he added.
While the United States has said it did not rule out an attack, the occupying regime of Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, has been at pain to deny any role.
The explosion came in the wake of recent military provocations at the Lebanese border and its shelling of villages.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said the cause was unclear, but compared the blast to a 2005 bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri.
Documents that surfaced after the blast showed that for years officials had been repeatedly warned that the presence of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate at the port posed a grave danger, but no one acted to remove it.
Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah called for a fair investigation and strict accountability for anyone responsible without any political cover.
"Even if a plane struck, or if it was an intentional act, if it turns out this nitrate had been at the port for years in this way, it means part of the case is absolutely negligence and corruption,” he said.
Nasrallah also mischievous media speculation in the early hours of the tragedy that Hezbollah had stored missiles in the port, adding that those accusations aimed to incite the Lebanese people against the resistance movement.
The explosion has generated a mix of shock and anger in Lebanon, which French President Emmanuel Macron has tried to manipulate by making an uninvited visit to the country and prompting comparisons with the country’s "colonial” past.
During the snap visit, the French president called for an international inquiry. Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen television said Macron, in a meeting with President Aoun, threatened Lebanese leaders with sanctions if they do not submit to reforms and a "political change”.
"I will be back on September 1, and if they can’t do it, I’ll take my political responsibility”, said Macron in remarks more sounding like those about a protectorate.
Macron’s remarks sparked an immediate backlash, with many Twitter users denouncing what they deemed as interference in the internal affairs of Lebanon, which gained independence from the French colonial rule more than seven decades ago.
Aoun on Friday dismissed Macron’s call for an international probe, stating that such attempts are meant to "dilute the truth.”
"There is no meaning for any verdict if it takes too long to be issued and the judiciary must be swift, because belated justice is not justice then,” Aoun told a press conference.
"Just like all Lebanese people, I’m angry about the blast that occurred at the port and our goal today is to unveil the truth. No one can push me to commit a mistake, no matter whether we are in a state of war or peace, and no one can prevent me from disclosing facts.”
Macron’s remarks on Thursday provoked unrest in Beirut, where a dozen angry protesters squared up against security forces. Police fired tear gas and clashed with demonstrators in Lebanon’s capital on Saturday.
Aoun said he personally asked Macron to provide Lebanese officials with any aerial images that would determine whether there were aircraft or missiles in Lebanon’s airspace before the catastrophic port blast.
"If the French do not possess such images, we will request them from other nations,” Aoun added.
Officials have said the blast, whose impact was recorded hundreds of miles (kms) away, might have caused losses amounting to $15 billion. That is a bill Lebanon cannot pay after already defaulting on a mountain of debt - exceeding 150% of economic output - and with talks stalled on a lifeline from the International Monetary Fund.
Hospitals, many heavily damaged as shockwaves ripped out windows and ceilings, have been overwhelmed.
More than 60 people are still missing four days after a massive explosion in Beirut on Tuesday, a Lebanese health ministry official said on Saturday. Lebanese Health Minister Hamad Hassan said the explosion also left some 5,000 people injured.
The United Nations said 300,000 people have been made homeless, including some 100,000 children, many of whom have been separated from their families.