Fury over Beirut blast fuels protests, clashes with police

BEIRUT (AP) — Public fury over this week’s massive explosion in Beirut took a new turn last Saturday as protesters stormed government institutions and clashed for hours with security forces, who responded with heavy volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets.

One police officer was killed and dozens of people hurt in the confrontations, which played out in streets that were wrecked from the blast at the port that devastated much of the city and killed nearly 160 people. Dozens were still missing and nearly 6,000 people injured.

The disaster has taken popular anger to a new level in a country already reeling from an unprecedented economic and financial crisis and near bankruptcy.

Activists who called for the protest set up symbolic nooses at Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square to hang politicians whose corruption and negligence they blame for the explosion.

The blast was fuelled by thousands of tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been improperly stored at the port for more than six years. Apparently set off by a fire, the explosion was by far the biggest in Lebanon’s troubled history and caused an estimated USD10 billion to USD15 billion in damage, according to Beirut’s governor. It also damaged 6,200 buildings and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless.

People clash with police during a protest against the political elites and the government after the deadly explosion at Beirut port. PHOTO: AP

Dozens of protesters stormed the buildings of government ministries and the headquarters of the banking association, turning their rage to state and financial institutions.

Last Saturday, the protesters entered the empty buildings of the foreign ministry, declaring it a headquarters of their movement. Others then fanned out to enter the economy and energy ministries, some walking away with documents claiming they will reveal the extent of corruption that permeates the government. Some also entered the environment ministry.

Many protesters said they now had only their homes and even those are no longer safe. They blamed the government’s inefficiency and political division for the country ills, including the recent disaster that hit almost every home.

The violence unfolded on the eve of an international conference co-hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron and United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres aimed at bringing donors together to supply emergency aid and equipment to the Lebanese population.

In a televised speech last Saturday evening, Prime Minister Hassan Diab said the only solution was to hold early elections, which he planned to propose in a draft bill.

He called on all political parties to put aside their disagreements and said he was prepared to stay in the post for two months to allow time for politicians to work on structural reforms.

The offer is unlikely to soothe the escalating fury on the street.