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Lebanese president says Beirut aid should go where needed

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanese President Michel Aoun said on Saturday that international aid pledged following a massive explosion in Beirut last week that killed 178 people and made 300,000 homeless should go where it is needed.

In an interview with French news channel BFM TV, Aoun said all hypotheses remained open in the investigation into the blast at the port of Beirut that wrecked huge swathes of the capital.

“I have asked that aid sent by foreign countries be given exactly where it is needed,” he said, adding that he had not considered resigning, after the government quit earlier in the week.

The United Nations has launched a $565 million aid appeal, whose priorities include stabilising the grain supply after the explosion destroyed a huge grain silo at the port.

Six hospitals and more than 20 clinics were damaged and more than 120 schools destroyed, the UN says.

“We would like to be able to rebuild the three hospitals that were completely destroyed,” U.N. humanitarian coordinator Najat Rochdi said earlier.

The United States called for a transparent and credible investigation into the disaster.

The Aug. 4 blast, which authorities say was caused by more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been unsafely stored at the port for years.

“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.

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He said FBI agents would arrive this weekend, at the invitation of Lebanon, to help investigate what led to the explosion.

ANGER

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.

Some Lebanese doubt the authorities can carry out a proper investigation and say foreign countries should intervene.

“We can’t trust this government. They will lie to us. They should form an international committee to investigate this,” said businessman Jimmy Iskandar.

Aoun has said a probe will look into whether the blast was caused by negligence, an accident or “external interference”.

He said in his interview that the investigation would not be as quick as he had hoped because it was complex and would involve an independent magistrate.

Asked why he did not want an international investigation, he said foreign experts, including from France and the FBI, were helping with the Lebanese probe.

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“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, Iranian-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 political vacuum since the resignation of the government, which had formed in January with backing of Hezbollah and its allies, including Aoun.

Additional reporting by Issam Abdallah and Gus Trompiz; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Frances Kerry, Ros Russell and Giles Elgood

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