Interview with Deb Knight, 2GB, Afternoons

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Explosion in Beirut.

Deb Knight: The Foreign Minister Marise Payne has just called in to give us an update on the situation in Lebanon. Minister, thanks for joining us.

Marise Payne: Thanks very much, Deb. It is a very sad day for Lebanon and for so many Lebanese-Australian families here in our own country.

Deb Knight: It is absolutely awful. And the pictures of this blast – it's like a nuclear explosion. The devastation obviously - it's just gone. It’s coming up to 6am on the ground there, do we have an idea of just how broad-reaching the impact is?

Marise Payne: Well, we are receiving reports of the very, very extensive damage. I don't want to pre-empt the information of course that the Lebanese Government will be putting out regularly, but we know that there has been an enormous impact. Tens of people counted as being killed now, and thousands are already injured. I can only imagine that number will significantly increase. It is a very, very serious incident.

Deb Knight: And Ray was told by the Prime Minister on his show earlier that there are normally 20,000 Australians in Lebanon. You've confirmed already that one Australian is among the dead. Do you have any other further information on that?

Marise Payne: Sadly, yes, that is the case. We will await the family's decisions around those matters and work closely with them in a consular sense as they go through what is a very traumatic time. We also have, of course, a large number of our own staff on the ground there. It's a relatively small embassy, but our own staff, I can assure Australians that they are safe, although the embassy itself, the chancery in particular, was hit in terms of windows being blown out. About 90-95 per cent of all of the windows at the front of the building are completely destroyed. There were glass injuries and other minor injuries as a result of that, but we thank heavens that those injuries were not more serious, although staff have, of course, received medical care.

There are around 20,000 Australians we estimate who are usually in Lebanon at any one time, and that goes to the closeness between our countries and the number of Australian-Lebanese families here as well. We are working very hard with consular officials, both here and in Beirut, to support anyone who needs our support and make sure that they are able to reach out to us. And we encourage them very much to be following for regular updates.

Deb Knight: And obviously it's early days as an unfolding situation. In terms of getting in contact with those Australians, as you say, your own embassy staff have been caught up in this and injured in this. Is it problematic trying to get in contact with those Australians? How are you going trying to reach them, trying to get in contact?

Marise Payne: Communications are very compromised. There's no question of that. And we are working closely to make sure we're not overwhelming our own system, but to ensure that Australians who need access, and those who are needing urgent consular assistance who are overseas can call +61 2 6261 3305. This is, it seems, just a terrible, terrible accident. Certainly on the advice that we have received that is the situation and the impact will be felt for a very, very long time.

Deb Knight: Because President Donald Trump in the United States has spoken and he said that he thought it was an attack. That's the information he received.

Marise Payne: Well we are - having discussed this recently with the Prime Minister on the advice that we have received, we do believe that it is a very, very serious accident.

Deb Knight: So an industrial accident, not an attack as President Trump has said earlier.

Marise Payne: An industrial accident – an accident of that nature, yes.

Deb Knight: Yeah, it's just extraordinary. It's like a nuclear bomb went off with that mushroom cloud that went off. The Lebanese Government, obviously they're scrambling. Have they reached out to you for help from Australia? What sort of help could we offer?

Marise Payne: I've been discussing that with officials this morning and the Lebanese Government obviously has had to deal with this challenge literally through the middle of the night, and we know from experience in disaster and crises, how difficult that is. We are very much open to that conversation, and I'll continue to work that through with the Prime Minister. The COVID-19 challenge, of course, complicates that as well, in terms of international movement. So being conscious of that, we will provide what support we can if that's appropriate and certainly work with our counterparts in Lebanon on that.

Deb Knight: Because that's the thing, they were already struggling, weren't they, with the pandemic in terms of their hospital resources and having to deal with this. I can't imagine how they would be coping with the number of injured and deaths that they'll be facing at the moment.

Marise Payne: Very much so. I think it's fair to say that 2020 really is delivering some of the most extraordinary challenges we have ever seen in our lives.

Deb Knight: Can you repeat those numbers again for people who might have loved ones they’re wanting to get in contact with?

Marise Payne: Certainly, +61 2 6261 3305.

Deb Knight: Alright. Marise Payne, the Foreign Minister, we thank you for your time.

Marise Payne: Thanks very much, Deb.

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