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Lebanese protesters storm ministry buildings as anger over Beirut explosion grows

Demonstrators take part in a protest, following Tuesday's blast, in Beirut, Lebanon August 8, 2020.
Demonstrators take part in a protest, following Tuesday's blast, in Beirut, Lebanon August 8, 2020. © REUTERS/Issam Abdallah
22 min

Lebanese protesters forced their way into government ministries in Beirut and trashed the offices of the Association of Banks in Lebanon on Saturday as shots rang out in increasingly angry demonstrations over this week's devastating explosion.

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More than 110 people were wounded during demonstrations in central Beirut on Saturday against this week's huge explosion and 32 people were taken to hospital, Lebanese Red Cross officials told local media.

Police confirmed shots and rubber bullets were fired during the clashes. It was not immediately clear who fired the shots. Riot police shot dozens of teargas canisters at protesters, who hit back with firecrackers and stones.

With security forces focused on a large gathering at the Martyrs' Square protest hub, a group led by retired army officers snuck into Lebanon's foreign ministry and declared the building a "headquarters of the revolution".

The stunt, which marked a new development in the strategy of a protest camp whose October 17 uprising had lost steam lately, was facilitated by the damage the port-blast shockwave had inflicted on the building.

But the takeover lasted barely three hours.

Large army reinforcements using rubber bullets and tear gas drove out the roughly 200 protesters, who only had time to chant celebratory slogans against the government and burn a portrait of President Michel Aoun.

At one point, protesters had stormed or taken over four key official buildings.

"We are officially at war with our government," said activist Hayat Nazer, as tear gas filled the air in downtown Beirut.

"This is war."

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'Lebanon is ours'

Separate groups of protesters also stormed the economy ministry, the Association of Banks in Lebanon and the energy ministry before being forced out by the army shortly afterwards.

The latter is the focus of particular anger from the population, which has in recent months been subjected to worse-than-ever power cuts due to the de facto bankruptcy of the state.

"They ruled Lebanon for 30 years, now Lebanon is ours," said one protester speaking on live Lebanese television broadcasts.

"We entered the energy ministry and we are here to stay."

The Association of Banks in Lebanon, another obvious target for protesters who have routinely nicknamed their rulers "the government of banks", was ransacked, an AFP reporter said.

By 10:30 pm local time. however, protesters had been dispersed and security forces deployed across the city, where the broken glass and rubble from Tuesday's disaster mixed with the smoking remains of a night of rage.

The rallies claimed a human toll too, with one policeman falling to his death following an "assault" by "rioters", the police said. A policeman at the scene said the officer died when he fell into an elevator shaft in a nearby building after being chased by protesters.

Dozens of people wounded during the violence also needed treatment in hospitals already bursting with the injured from Tuesday's blast and coronavirus patients.

"We are staying here. We call on the Lebanese people to occupy all the ministries," one demonstrator said on a megaphone, as new protests erupted against the political leadership blamed for a massive explosion that killed more than 150 people in the capital this week.

Possible early elections

Speaking at a press conference on Saturday evening, Lebanon's Prime Minister Hassan Diab said he would request early parliamentary elections to defuse an escalating political crisis following the catastrophic explosion at the port of Beirut.

"We cannot get out of this crisis without early parliamentary elections," he said, reading a statement. He added he was not to blame for the country's deep economic and political woes.

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan says he will call for early elections following the blast
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The US Embassy in Beirut said the US government supported the demonstrators' right to peaceful protest and urged all involved to refrain from violence.

The embassy also said in a tweet that the Lebanese people "deserved leaders who listen to them and change course to respond to popular demands for transparency and accountability".

Explosion felt in neighbouring countries

A fire at Beirut port on Tuesday ignited a stock of ammonium nitrate and triggered an explosion that was felt in neighbouring countries and destroyed entire sections of the city.

The blast killed more than 150 people and injured 5,000 while leaving more than a quarter of a million people without homes. Spectacular videos of the disaster show a mushroom-shaped shockwave that swept from the port through the city.  

According to the health ministry, more than 60 people are still missing.

The lack of political change combined with a stinging economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic all but snuffed out the revolutionary movement – until this week.

"Today is the first demonstration since the explosion, an explosion in which any one of us could have died," said Hayat Nazer, an activist who has contributed to solidarity initiatives for blast victims.

"This is the biggest warning for everyone now that we don't have anything to lose anymore. Everyone should be in the streets today, everyone," she told AFP.

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Anti-government protests are continuing in Beirut
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>> ‘Beirut is destroyed, my heart is broken’: Locals in despair over Lebanon blast

International aid 

Two days after a landmark visit by French President Emmanuel Macron, diplomatic activity was intensifying to organise international support for the disaster-hit country ahead of a Sunday aid conference to be co-hosted by Macron and the United Nations. The Arab League has also pledged support. 

Three senior diplomats were in Beirut Saturday in a show of solidarity with the disaster-hit city, where 300,000 people were made temporarily homeless by the port explosion.

The first to meet top officials was Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was also expected as was the president of the European Council, Charles Michel.

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The president and prime minister of Lebanon have promised a government investigation but, more than a mere case of negligence, many Lebanese see the blast as a direct result of high-level corruption. Few Lebanese trust that the leadership would incriminate its own in an investigation chaired by some of the country's top officials.

Aoun, however, has rejected calls for an international independent investigation into the blast.

A total of 21 people have been detained so far, including Badri Daher, director-general of Lebanon's customs authority.

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'Wake-up call'

Lebanon defaulted on its debt earlier this year and the current leadership has so far consistently failed to address the economic emergency and agree on an international rescue package despite intense Western pressure.

Analyst Nasser Yassin, of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, said Lebanon's leaders were clearly seeking to take advantage of the situation.

"The fear is that the authorities will benefit from this great disaster and from the international and Arab attention they are getting," he said.

Activist Hayat Nazer said the current crisis should not turn into a chance for the political elite to get a new lease of life but instead give fresh impetus to a drive for change.

"I think it's the last wake-up call for people," she said.

"We need to save each other, we need to clean our country, to rebuild it, and to completely disregard that we have politicians," Nazer said.

"It's not just about protesting in the streets. We can make a change on a daily basis, the revolution is part of our lives, we can apply it every day."

Lebanon's information minister, Manal Abdel Samad, became the first political casualty of the explosions when she resigned on Sunday, apologising to the Lebanese people. 

"After the enormous Beirut catastrophe, I announce my resignation from government," she said in a statement carried by local media.

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(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and Reuters)

 

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