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Shots, Tear Gas Fired as Protests against Beirut Explosion Grow

Shots, Tear Gas Fired as Protests against Beirut Explosion Grow

Saturday, 8 August, 2020 - 16:30
Demonstrators gather during a protest following Tuesday's blast, in Beirut, Lebanon August 8, 2020. (Reuters)

Lebanese protesters stormed government ministries in Beirut and trashed the offices of the Association of Lebanese Banks on Saturday, TV footage showed, as shots were fired in growing protests over this week’s devastating explosion.


A policeman was killed during the clashes, a spokesman 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.


The Red Cross said it had treated 117 people for injuries on the scene while another 55 were taken to hospital. A fire broke out in central Martyrs’ Square.


Dozens of protesters broke into the foreign ministry where they burnt a framed portrait of President Michel Aoun, representative for many of a political class that has ruled Lebanon for decades and that they say is to blame for its deep political and economic crises.


“We are staying here. We call on the Lebanese people to occupy all the ministries,” a demonstrator said by megaphone.


About 10,000 people gathered in Martyrs’ Square, some throwing stones. Police fired tear gas when some protesters tried to break through the barrier blocking a street leading to parliament, a Reuters journalist said.


Police confirmed shots and rubber bullets had been fired. It was not immediately clear who fired the shots.


TV footage showed protesters also breaking into the energy and economy ministries.


The protesters said their politicians should be hanged and punished over their negligence that they say led to Tuesday’s gigantic explosion that killed 158 people and injured more than 6,000.


The protesters chanted “the people want the fall of the regime”, reprising a popular chant from the so-called Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. They held posters saying “Leave, you are all killers”.


Prime Minister Hassan Diab said the only way out was early parliamentary elections.


‘Go home!’

The protests were the biggest since October when thousands of people took to the streets in protest against the ruling elite’s corruption, bad governance and mismanagement.


“You have no conscience, you have no morality. Go home! Leave! Resign, Enough is enough,” shouted one of the protesters. “What else do you want? You brought us poverty, death and destruction,” said another.


“Resign or hang,” said one banner.


Soldiers in vehicles mounted with machine guns patrolled the area. Ambulances rushed to the scene. One teenager fainted after being overcome by tear gas.


“Really the army is here? Are you here to shoot us? Join us and we can fight the government together,” a woman yelled.


Tuesday’s blast was the biggest in Beirut’s history. Twenty-one people were still reported as missing from the explosion, which destroyed a large swathe of the city.


The government has promised to hold those responsible to account. But few Lebanese are convinced. Some set up nooses on wooden frames as a symbolic warning to Lebanese leaders.


The prime minister and presidency have said 2,750 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, which is used in making fertilizers and bombs, had been stored for six years without safety measures at the port warehouse.


Economic meltdown

The explosion hit a city still scarred by civil war and reeling from an economic meltdown and a surge in coronavirus infections.


For many, it was a dreadful reminder of the 1975-1990 civil war that tore the nation apart and destroyed swathes of Beirut, much of which had since been rebuilt.


Some residents, struggling to clean up shattered homes, complain the government has let them down again.


“We have no trust in our government,” said university student Celine Dibo as she scrubbed blood off the walls of her shattered apartment building. “I wish the United Nations would take over Lebanon.”


Many people denounced their leaders, saying none of them visited the site of the blast to comfort them or assess the damage while French President Emmanuel Macron flew from Paris and went straight to the scene to pay his tribute.


Lebanon’s Kataeb Party, a group that opposes the government backed by the Iran-aligned Hezbollah, announced the resignation of its three lawmakers from parliament.


Macron, who visited Beirut on Thursday, promised aid to rebuild the city would not fall into “corrupt hands”. He will host a donor conference for Lebanon via video link on Sunday, his office said. US President Donald Trump said that he will join.


Aoun said on Friday an investigation would examine whether the blast was caused by a bomb or other external interference. Aoun said the investigation would also weigh if it was due to negligence or an accident. Twenty people had been detained so far, he added.


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