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In the port and the city of Beirut, the soldiers of Operation Friendship are deployed

(B2) In Beirut, without fuss, the French soldiers are carrying out delicate but vital work: clearing the port and making it safer. Interview with Captain Arnaud Tranchant (PHA Tonnerre) and Colonel Antoine de la Bardonnie (2nd REG), heads of the 'Marine' and 'Land' detachments

Soldiers from the 19th Engineer Regiment and the 2nd Foreign Engineer Regiment (REG) of GT Ventoux, clear hangars destroyed by the explosion, in the port of Beirut, Saturday August 22 (credit: DICOD / EMA).

A major disaster

The importance of the damage

The first impression is naturally at the height of the disaster. " One can only be struck, when one arrives, by the extent of the damage, the violence of the explosion, the devastated landscape in the port area. Everything is returned », Explains to B2 the pass. Antoine de La Bardonnie who commands the GT (Tactical Group) Terre 'Ventoux'. The impact is " significant ": " a part of the quays collapsed. The naval base was partially destroyed. Port offices were hit. »

The effect of blast capsized the port

Same impression of the Pasha du Tonnerre, the captain Tranchant whom we also had by telephone: “ The entry into the port allowed us to become aware of the extent of the disaster, the reasons for which we had embarked. We are faced with extraordinary dimensions. Scenes worthy of those read in the history books on the bombings. As a sailor, what struck him were " these big ships [which] have been laid down by the blast [blast], tugs that have hit the bottom. In basin n°3, under the effect of the blast, the water disappeared, sending ships hitting either the quays or the bottom. " The wave has risen very high ". And its effects have been very strong far away,” up to 15 km from the port ».

View of part of the accesses to the port of Beirut (credit: DICOD / EMA)

The reaction of the population and the Lebanese army

Second impression of our soldiers on the spot: the rapid takeover by the population. " The Lebanese have taken their destiny into their own hands. On the roads, the youth mobilized, took the brooms and cleared everything they could “, describes Col. of La Bardonnie. The Lebanese army, which is one of the main cement elements of Lebanon, has not remained idly by either. " The soldiers are very mobilized, they have been working tirelessly for several weeks to fulfill their responsibilities and restore the port. They are tired and even exhausted (Sharp CV).

Material support, but just as moral

In fact, beyond the means deployed, the arrival of the French ship and the engineers were welcomed with relief by the Lebanese soldiers. " There was material support, but also moral support to say that they were not alone (Sharp CV). In the flood of aid and relief, the French are indeed the only force of genius (1). An Italian boat arrived a few days ago, with two or three engineers. They will increase in power, and thus be able to relay the French.

Port activity was able to resume

However, activity in the port is not completely interrupted. The container zone was able to resume fairly quickly, but less than usual. " 72 hours after the explosion traffic in the port was as expected “, at least in an emergency situation and in times of coronavirus. " The boats were very quickly able to continue unloading (Col. de La Bardonnie). " Many things have been done. It is certain that there is not the rhythm of activity of before, and that the port will not find what it was before the explosion before long months. It is necessary to distinguish between what emerges from the emergency, and from the complete reconstruction. But it is constantly progressing. Everyone got to work to supply Lebanon with the basic necessities it needs (Sharp CV).

Multi-azimuth works

The distribution of humanitarian aid

The first action of the French soldiers was to unload the tons of humanitarian aid (2). Aid transferred to the hippodrome, where it is distributed between NGOs and other organizations under the aegis of the Lebanese army and the French embassy.

Arrival of the MN Calao at the port of Beirut on August 17, carrying equipment, food and humanitarian aid (credit: DICOD / EMA)

A large construction site, the port, but also additional construction sites

Day after day, the French soldiers rolled out their roadmap: “ be able to lead a major project, as in the port, and two peripheral projects (Col. de La Bardonnie). The bulldozers and other construction machinery of the GT Terre have thus been used on several occasions. The pace is intense: 1500 tonnes cleared per day on average.

Quickly repair the port

The main task remains the port, epicenter of the explosion, the quays and the sheds like the basins. Sailors and earthlings thus worked on both sides. The sheds that had collapsed, or that threatened to do so, were cleared to clear the access routes. The water was restored, with the rehabilitation of the water station. An essential element for the quays to be supplied.

A map of the maritime situation

On the maritime side, clearance divers and hydrographers from Shom (hydrographic and oceanographic service of the Navy) carried out a concerted action, using sonar, to map the state of the port after the explosion " and detect all objects that could hinder the movement of the port ". Vehicles fell off the dock. The mapping was given to the Lebanese, very useful for planning the work and planning the resumption of activity.

Clear the basins and restore the pilot boats

The sailors then carried out several urgent actions to facilitate access. They thus cut the mature of a sunken barge, repaired the pilot boats and commercial tugs (propulsion, control commands), cleared the harbor master's office so that it could resume its role of traffic regulation, etc.

Aid to the Lebanese Navy

The sailors also came to the aid of their Lebanese counterparts. " We intervened on Lebanese navy boats to restore them. And when French divers dive, they take the opportunity to do mutual training with their Lebanese counterparts. " They are delighted and very moved to see us arrive, there is a bond of brotherhood between Lebanese and French sailors that does not date from today (Sharp CV).

Very useful 'small' projects

The military were also commissioned to carry out 'more modest' construction sites. It's the Lebanese who identify needs as they arise " in connection with the defense mission of the French Embassy " in neighboring districtss” of the port. GT Terre thus set off to clear the Charles Hélou bus station, then intervened in several schools (Sacred Heart School, Three Doctors, La Sagesse, etc.) to remove anything that could be dangerous, such as a courtyard that threatened to s 'collapse. Objective: to allow the Lebanese teams to continue the restoration in safety, and the teachers and students to return to school.

Permanent coordination with the Lebanese

With the Lebanese army, there is real mutual trust. We have more than daily contact, almost every hour. Meetings are very frequent. “There is no team each in his corner. " Coordination takes place at all levels, from the corps commander to the platoon commanders, including the unit commanders. All projects are carried out jointly, in an integrated manner. (Col. de La Bardonnie).

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

Going on alert, the French DNA

750 soldiers have been deployed since August 14: 200 sailors from the Tonnerre crew, 150 members of the navy detachment from other services and the air force, 350 from the 'Ventoux' land group, composed around the 2nd regiment foreign engineer (REG) based in Saint-Christol (Vaucluse).

For the two senior officers, leaving in the middle of August was not easy, especially for sailors returning from a mission at sea (off the Gulf of Guinea). But " the crew did not ask the question. The device on alert is a bit in our DNA “, relates the CV Tranchant. Loading the cargo took a bit of time initially, as the humanitarian cargo was not really configured for transport by military ship. It took " protect everything and film ».

All " the taste » of this operation was however to urgently plan all the series of unknowns which could occur. Thus the PHA Tonnerre had planned not to be able to dock in Beirut. The option had been planned to then deploy its EDAR (fast amphibious landing craft) and its landing craft. There was no need. The recognition of the port by the divers of the national navy made it possible to say that everything was OK to dock on port 12.

As for GT Terre, on Cheetah alert, it is also part of the job. " It is our normal mission to react to the emergency. This justifies our alert systems that we maintain 24 hours a day. “, confirms Col. of La Bardonnie. The magnitude of the disaster has also forced to call on other regiments. In all, five of the eight engineer regiments take part in Operation 'Friendship'.

Interviews conducted by telephone between Saturday August 22 and Monday August 24.

  1. Many countries deployed search and rescue teams in the early days, with dogs and equipment (read: Huge explosion in the port of Beirut. Europeans mobilize (v11)). A deployment that was fairly quickly repatriated, past the emergency phase.
  2. 1200 tonnes of humanitarian aid conveyed by air and sea. Four A400M shuttles, 1 C-130 J, 1 A330 multi-role aircraft, an A310 transport aircraft and a Transall C-160 were thus mobilized on the air side

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).