Ministers quit as renewed Lebanon protests up pressure on govt

Protesters run from tear gas fired by police forces during an anti-govt protest in Beirut on Saturday. (AP pic)

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s political elite faced pressure from all sides Sunday after a deadly explosion blamed on official negligence, with two ministers quitting over the affair and angry protesters clashing with security forces.

As hopes faded of finding any survivors of Tuesday’s blast, social media was flooded with furious posts after a night that saw protesters briefly take over ministries in Beirut.

A picture went viral online showing the city’s devastated port, with a low wall in the foreground bearing the spray-painted message: “My government did this.”

While it is not known what started the fire that set off a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate, protesters say the disaster could not have happened without the corruption and incompetence that have come to define Lebanon’s ruling class.

“Those who died paid the price of a state that doesn’t care about anything except power and money,” said protester Tamara, 23, whose friend Rawan, 20, was killed in the blast.

“It’s not enough that ministers resign,” said her friend Michel.

“Those who put the explosives there must be held accountable. We want an international tribunal to tell us who killed (Rawan).”

The explosion laid waste to Beirut and killed at least 158 people and injured a staggering 6,000, many bloodied by flying glass as the shockwave tore through the city.

“We have fading hopes of finding survivors,” Lebanese army Colonel Roger Khoury told reporters Sunday.

The catastrophe has revived the mass anti-government protests that had for months demanded the wholesale removal of Lebanon’s political elite, until coronavirus lockdown measures brought an uneasy calm.

On Sunday afternoon, hundreds gathered again in and around Martyrs’ Square, a short walk from the port.

Police fired tear gas in an attempt to disperse protesters hurling stones and shooting fireworks near a street leading to parliament, AFP correspondents said.

Tear gas, rubber bullets

Demonstrators march with candles and flashlights in honour of the victims of Tuesday’s blast yesterday. (AP pic)

Demonstrators briefly took over several government ministries Saturday night, while security forces scuffled with crowds of furious demonstrators.

Human Rights Watch’s Lebanon researcher Aya Majzoub said some security forces had indiscriminately fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters.

“Instead of deploying the army to help residents clear rubble from their homes, businesses, and communities, the Lebanese authorities chose to deploy them and other security forces against protesters.”

Saturday’s violence injured 65 people, the Lebanese Red Cross reported, while lawyers supporting protesters said security forces made 20 arrests.

The Aug 4 explosion came as Lebanon was already reeling from an economic crisis that has seen its currency collapse, plunging swathes of its population into poverty, and struggling with a spike in coronavirus cases.

Aid and investigation

On Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron oversaw a UN-backed virtual donor conference to raise aid for the cash-strapped country, where some 300,000 people were rendered homeless by the disaster.

The world must respond “quickly and effectively” and ensure aid goes “as efficiently as possible to the Lebanese people”, Macron said.

In a joint statement issued after the conference, donors pledged the assistance would be “directly delivered to the Lebanese population” under the supervision of the UN.

France said €250 million had been pledged at the conference.

The UN said some US$117 million would be needed over the next three months for health services, emergency shelter, food distribution and programmes to prevent the further spread of Covid-19, among other interventions.

They also offered support for an “impartial, credible and independent inquiry” into the disaster – something Lebanese President Michel Aoun has dismissed, saying it would only “dilute the truth”.

US President Donald Trump urged Lebanese authorities “to conduct a full and transparent investigation, in which the US stands ready to assist”.

Government unravels

Meanwhile the embattled government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab took another hit Sunday with the resignations of Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad and Environment Minister Damianos Kattar.

Calling the explosion an “enormous catastrophe”, Kattar said he had lost hope in a “sterile regime that botched several opportunities”.

Several MPs also quit and local media reported Diab was mulling announcing the entire government’s resignation.

The revelation that Lebanese state officials had long tolerated a ticking time-bomb in the heart of the capital has served as shocking proof to many Lebanese of the rot at the core of the state apparatus.

Diab said Saturday he would propose early elections to break the impasse that is plunging Lebanon ever deeper into political and economic crisis.

Parliament speaker Nabih Berri called a meeting of the legislature on Thursday “to question the government on the crime that struck the capital”, state media said.

The disaster has revived anger at a ruling class seen as living in luxury while millions endure job losses, deepening poverty, power blackouts and garbage mountains piling up in the streets.

Politics in multi-confessional Lebanon is dominated by former warlords from the 1975-1990 civil war who have exchanged their military fatigues for suits, or were replaced by relatives.

While there are Sunni Muslim, Christian and myriad other groups, the most powerful is the Shiite Hezbollah movement.