World rallies to help Lebanon after blast

Countries including declared enemy Israel, are ready to help Lebanon after the Beirut explosion.
Countries including declared enemy Israel, are ready to help Lebanon after the Beirut explosion.

As Lebanon counted its dead and rescuers combed rubble for signs of life after a huge explosion shattered Beirut, nations near and far have pledged to help the country deal with the disaster.

The explosion at the capital's port killed at least 135 people and injured thousands, with shock waves smashing deep into the city. From Australia to Indonesia to Europe and the United States, countries readied to send in aid and search teams.

The blast appeared to have been triggered by a fire that touched off a giant quantity of ammonium nitrate fertiliser stored for years in the port, exploding with the force of a moderately strong earthquake.

Paris wasted no time in dispatching two plane-loads of specialists, rescue workers and supplies to Beirut on Wednesday. Reflecting both the gravity of the disaster and France's special relationship with its former protectorate, French President Emmanuel Macron was to visit Lebanon on Thursday.

The disaster comes atop the worst economic crisis in Lebanon's modern history, and hesitancy among some backers, including France, to keep propping up a country in dire need of reform.

The European Union was activating its civil protection system to round up emergency workers and equipment from across the 27-nation bloc. The EU commission said the plan was to urgently dispatch over 100 firefighters with vehicles, sniffer dogs and equipment designed to find people trapped in urban areas.

The Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Poland and the Netherlands were taking part in the effort, with other countries expected to join. The EU's satellite mapping system will be used to help Lebanese authorities establish the extent of damage.

Britain has promised a $9.1 million humanitarian support package.

Help was also coming from closer to home. Iraq was sending six trucks of medical supplies and an emergency medical team to help bolster Lebanon's overstretched health system, and Egypt and Jordan were supplying field hospitals.

Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country, officially in a state of war with Lebanon, stood ready to offer to assist the Lebanese "as human beings to human beings."

The red, white and cedar green of the Lebanese flag was lit up over a Tel Aviv square on Wednesday in a rare show of Israeli solidarity with Beirut.

Some Israeli politicians likened it to "raising (an) enemy state's flag in the heart of Tel Aviv".

UN peacekeepers from Indonesia already stationed in Lebanon were helping in the evacuation effort, and Australia said it was donating $A2 million in humanitarian support.

But the pledges of aid raised new questions for a country whose economic and political crisis, combined with endemic corruption, have made donors wary in recent years.

In a visit to Lebanon less than two weeks ago, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian made clear that France, Beirut's steadfast economic backer, would withhold support not destined to go directly to the Lebanese population, until "credible and serious reform measures" get under way.

US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo reaffirmed "our steadfast commitment to assist the Lebanese people" in a phone call with Prime Minister Hassan Diab.

The World Health Organisation is airlifting medical supplies to Lebanon to cover up to 1,000 trauma interventions and up to 1,000 surgical interventions, following a request from the country's health minister.

Pope Francis offered prayers for the Lebanese, while in Paris the Eiffel tower will be in darkness.

Australian Associated Press