French President Macron’s visit touches a chord in shellshocked Beirut

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French President Emmanuel Macron speaks to the woman who asked him for help during his visit to Beirut’s devastated Gemmayzeh neighborhood. (AP)
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A video grab shows French President Emmmanuel Macron (C) inspecting the damage at the port of Lebanon's capital Beirut, on August 6, 2020. (POOL / AFP)
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French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut on Thursday, pledging support and urging change after massive explosions at the port devastated the Lebanese capital in a disaster that has sparked grief and fury. (AFP)
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A handout picture shows Lebanon's President Michel Aoun (R) receiving French President Emmmanuel Macron at the airport near the capital Beirut, on August 6, 2020. (Dalati and Nohra photo)
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A video grab shows French President Emmmanuel Macron (L) speaking with a member of a French rescue team which arrived overnight to support relief efforts at the port of Lebanon's capital Beirut on August 6, 2020y. (POOL / AFP)
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French President Emmanuel Macron hugs a woman during his visit to Beirut’s devastated Gemmayzeh neighborhood. (AFP)
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Crowds calling for political change surround the French leader during a visit to the Beirut port area. (AFP)
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Updated 10 August 2020

French President Macron’s visit touches a chord in shellshocked Beirut

  • Emmanuel Macron was the first foreign leader to arrive in Lebanon after Tuesday’s devastating explosions
  • Mobbed by tearful Beirut crowds, French leader vowed that ‘a free Lebanon will rise again’

BEIRUT: French President Emmanuel Macron stood among the ruins of Beirut's shattered port yesterday and issued a harsh warning to Lebanese political leaders, saying that aid would not be delivered to “corrupt hands.”

“Lebanon needs political change,” the French leader said during his one-day visit on Thursday, adding that he is “not here to support the regime or the government.”

Macron set the tone for his visit on his arrival at Beirut airport, saying that he would meet with Lebanese officials “only as a matter of courtesy” and adding that “Lebanon’s crisis is a moral and political one.”

Later he was mobbed by large crowds while touring the shattered streets near Beirut port, listening to the tearful complaints of people left homeless by the massive explosion two days ago that killed more than 150 people and injured more than 5,000.

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People chanted and applauded as one woman cried in French: “Help us, Mr. President.”

A few young men said: “The people want to topple the regime,” while others said: “Down with Hezbollah.”


Confronted by a young woman who criticized him for meeting with corrupt officials, Macron pulled his face mask down and replied: “I can guarantee that this assistance will not be placed in the hands of the corrupt, and a free Lebanon will rise again.”

He held the hand of the woman who asked him for help.

Macron promised “unconditional” French assistance, but said: “We will organize international aid so that it directly reaches the Lebanese people under UN supervision. I am here to launch a new political initiative. I will propose a new political decade during my meetings and I will return on Sept. 1 to follow up on it.”

He added: “I understand the anger of Lebanon’s people toward the ruling class, and this anger is caused by corruption. This explosion is the result of neglect, and I will help you change things.”




French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut on Thursday, pledging support and urging change after massive explosions at the port devastated the Lebanese capital in a disaster that has sparked grief and fury. (AFP)

As crowds pressed forward to voice their concerns, the French leader delayed his meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun for over 30 minutes.

A young man said after Macron left: “The French president checked on the Lebanese in the Francophone country — where are our officials? Why did they not come down here like the French president?”

Macron was the first foreign leader to arrive in Lebanon after Tuesday’s disaster.

Ignoring his bodyguards, Macron broke from his timetable to walk along the devastated streets and wave at people who stood in the remnants of their balconies to salute France.

The French president insisted on inspecting the area devastated by the explosion before taking part in any political meetings. On his arrival in the capital, he tweeted: “Lebanon is not alone.”

With the country facing economic meltdown, a currency crisis and now the threat of food shortages, the massive blast has left the Lebanese people stunned and even more fearful for the future.

Macron said that he carried a “frank and strict message” to the authorities amid Lebanon’s economic and financial crisis.

“If reforms are not carried out, Lebanon will continue to sink,” he said.

The French delegation accompanying Macron included seven explosives specialists. They were later joined by 17 experts searching for people missing after the explosion or buried under rubble.

While Macron inspected the damage at the port, an officer from the French rescue team said that “there is still hope for survivors to be found.




Crowds calling for political change surround the French leader during a visit to the Beirut port area. (AFP) 

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Hassan Diab joined the meeting at the Baabda Palace, while Macron avoided shaking hands with any official.

After the meeting he told a joint press conference with Aoun: “We want to know the causes of the Beirut port explosion.”

A meeting at the Pine Residence, headquarters of the French ambassador to Lebanon, brought together political and party figures including loyalists and the opposition.

At the same time Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt called for “an international investigation committee” to investigate the explosion.

“We don’t believe in the government in any way; we do not trust it,” he said.

“There is a gross failure of the judiciary and the security services, and we have absolutely no confidence in this ruling gang.”

Jumblatt said that “without Arab and international support, we cannot continue as a country, and greater Lebanon will disappear.”

He also questioned the likely cause of the explosion, saying: “This huge amount of ammonium nitrate came to the port of Beirut and remained there for almost six years. It does not explode even if it is toxic or explosive by itself — it needs a detonator.”

He described Prime Minister Diab as “a wolf” and “nothing.”

As the site of the deadly blast was cordoned off by the Lebanese army, rescue teams continued to search for survivors or the dead.

According to Health Minister Hamad Hassan, 80 people are still missing.

On Wednesday night, 36 search and rescue experts, including firefighters accompanied by trained dogs, arrived from Czechia. Six bodies were recovered from inside the port and another three from the nearby ocean.


Iranian asylum seeker stuck in limbo on divided Cyprus

Iranian singer Omid Tootian, 46, gestures during an interview at a coffee shop in the UN-controlled buffer zone in the Cypriot capital Nicosia, on September 23, 2020, where he's been stuck since mid-September. (AFP)
Updated 27 September 2020

Iranian asylum seeker stuck in limbo on divided Cyprus

  • Because his songs are very critical of the Iranian regime, Tootian fears that if he returns to the north of the island, he will first be sent back to Turkey and then to Iran

NICOSIA: Dissident Iranian singer Omid Tootian has for days been sleeping in a tent in the buffer zone of the world’s last divided capital, after being refused entry by the Republic of Cyprus.
“I can’t go to one side or the other,” the performer, in his mid-40s, whose songs speak out against Iranian authorities, told AFP. “I’m stuck living in the street.”
His tent is pitched between two checkpoints in western Nicosia, among the weeds outside an abandoned house in the quasi-“no man’s land” that separates the northern and southern parts of Cyprus, which has been divided since 1974.
In early September, he traveled to the north of the Mediterranean island, controlled by the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), recognized only by Ankara.
Two weeks later, Tootian, who had been living in Turkey for around three years, tried for the first time to seek asylum in the Republic of Cyprus, which controls the southern two-thirds of the island and is in the EU.  But once at the green line, the 180 -km buffer zone that traverses the island and is patrolled by UN peacekeepers, he was denied entry into the south.
Refusing to return to the TRNC, where he fears he would be in danger, Tootian found himself in limbo in the few hundred meters of land that divides the two territories.
“I don’t know why they haven’t approved my entry ... but I think it’s because of the coronavirus,” he said, speaking at the pro-unification Home for Cooperation community center in the buffer zone where he eats, grooms and spends most of his days.
“But I hope things will become clear because now I don’t know what will happen, and it’s a very difficult situation.”
Because his songs are very critical of the Iranian regime, Tootian fears that if he returns to the north of the island, he will first be sent back to Turkey and then to Iran.

Turkey is no longer a safe country for me because the Turkish regime is close to Iran.

Omid Tootian, Dissident Iranian singer

“Turkey is no longer a safe country for me because the Turkish regime is close to Iran,” he said, adding that he had for the past six months been receiving anonymous “threats” from unknown callers using private phone numbers.
In July, three Iranians were sentenced to death by the Islamic republic. Two of them had initially fled to Turkey and, according to the non-governmental group the Center for Human Rights in Iran, Turkish authorities cooperated with Tehran to repatriate them.
Since arriving at the checkpoint, Tootian has tried “four or five times” in a week to enter, without success, despite the help of a migrant rights advocacy group known as KISA and the UN mission in the buffer zone.
According to European and international regulations, Cyprus cannot expel an asylum seeker until the application has been considered and a final decision issued.
The police said “they have restrictions not to let anybody in,” KISA member Doros Polycarpou told AFP.
Cypriot police spokesman Christos Andreou said “it is not the responsibility of the police” to decide who can enter the Republic of Cyprus.
They “follow the instructions of the Ministry of Interior,” put in place “because of the pandemic,” he added.
According to the ministry, “all persons who are willing to cross from a legal entry point to the area controlled by the Republic must present a negative COVID-19 test carried out within the last 72 hours” — a requirement Tootian said he had fulfilled.
Polycarpou charges that the Cypriot “government has used the pandemic to restrict basic human rights.”
A spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency in Cyprus Emilia Strovolidou said “there are other means to protect asylum seekers and public health at the same time ... we can test people when they arrive or take quarantine measures.”
“We have someone who is seeking international protection, he should have access to the process,” she added.
Due to the closure of other migration routes to Europe, asylum applications have increased sixfold over the last five years in Cyprus — a country of fewer than 1 million inhabitants — from 2,265 in 2015 to 13,650 in 2019, according to Eurostat data.