France sends troops to Lebanon as Iran warns West against meddling
By Weedah Hamzah
Beirut - More than 700 French troops have arrived along with a helicopter carrier to Beirut to participate in recovery operations in the aftermath of the August 4 port explosion, visiting French Defence Minister Florence Parly said on Friday.
"The toll is shocking," Parly said. "This tragedy has resonated greatly in my country. Lebanon has a special place in our hearts."
The French troops include rescuers, military engineers, specialists in building and repair, as well as divers.
The French troop arrival came as US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif separately met with Lebanese officials in Beirut.
The massive blast killed 178 and wounded 6,000 others, according to official figures. Its aftermath prompted the Lebanese government of Hassan Diab to resign on Monday amid calls by street protesters to hold those responsible accountable.
On Thursday, Hale said the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) would join the probe into the blast that has devastated large parts of the city.
According to the Lebanese television LBCI, FBI investigators are due in Beirut on Sunday.
After meeting with his Lebanese counterpart Charbel Wehbe, the Iranian foreign minister said the Iranian government and private sector companies were eager to support Lebanon.
Zarif added that no one should intervene in Lebanon's decision-making or take advantage of the devastating blast to influence the country's decisions.
The Iranian official in an interview late Friday with the Lebanese broadcaster al Mayadeen warned of the presence of foreign warship at the Lebanese coast after the blast.
"The presence of foreign warships on the Lebanese coasts is not a natural thing, and this is a threat to the Lebanese people and their resistance (Hezbollah)," Zarif said.
A French and a British warship have docked in Lebanon since last week to offer aid and assitance as part of its rescue operations following the blast.
Hezbollah is backed and financed by Iran.
The blast was caused by tons of ammonium nitrate stored in the port without proper safety measures, fuelling street anger in Lebanon.
Families of the victims Friday called for an international investigation.
"We want an international probe. We want our leaders to stop playing with our lives like a chess game," said Paul Najjar, the father of a 3-year-old girl who died in the blast.
"We want to know who killed our loved ones," he said at a press conference for the victims' families in Beirut.
A United Nations report said Friday that the Beirut port is now functioning at only 30 per cent capacity.
"A preliminary assessment within a 15-kilometre radius of the explosion has revealed that out of 55 medical facilities, only half are fully operational and around 40 per cent have suffered moderate to serious damage," added the report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
The report also said some 120 schools, used by 50 000 students, have been damaged.