Beirut explosion: Anti-government protest breaks out as anger grows

Beirut explosion: Anti-government protest breaks out as anger grows

Protests in Beirut after explosions destroy port area (6)
Riot police clash with demonstrators during a protest in Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Aug 7, 2020. (Photo: AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

BEIRUT: Lebanon's leadership faced growing rage after a massive explosion laid waste to large parts of central Beirut, with security forces firing tear gas at demonstrations late Thursday (Aug 6) as international leaders called for reform. 

Shock has turned to anger in a traumatised nation where at least 149 people died and more than 5,000 were injured in Tuesday's colossal explosion of a huge pile of ammonium nitrate that had languished for years in a port warehouse.

To many Lebanese, it was tragic proof of the rot at the core of their governing system, which has failed to halt the deepest economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war and has plunged millions into poverty.

Protests in Beirut after explosions destroy port area (1)
Demonstrators clash with riot police during a protest in Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Aug 7, 2020. (Photo: AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

A small but violent protest took place near an entrance to parliament in central Beirut.

Riot police were deployed after some demonstrators burned objects and hurled rocks at security forces. 

Protests in Beirut after explosions destroy port area (7)
Riot police clash with demonstrators during a protest in Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Aug 7, 2020. (Photo: AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Tear gas was fired to disperse the protesters. Some were wounded, the National News Agency reported.

Protests in Beirut after explosions destroy port area (4)
Demonstrators set fire to cardboard during a protest in Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Aug 7, 2020. (Photo: AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Earlier, visiting French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to lead international emergency relief efforts and organise an aid conference in the coming days, promising that "Lebanon is not alone".

But he also warned that the country - already in desperate need of a multi-billion-dollar bailout and hit by political turmoil since October - would "continue to sink" unless it implements urgent reforms.

READ: Angry crowds in Beirut urge French President Macron to help bring change after deadly blast

READ: Lebanese residents band together to clean up streets after deadly blast

Speaking of Lebanon's political leaders, Macron said "their responsibility is huge - that of a revamped pact with the Lebanese people in the coming weeks, that of deep change".

The International Monetary Fund, whose talks with Lebanon started in May but have since stalled, warned that it was "essential to overcome the impasse in the discussions on critical reforms".

The IMF urged Lebanon - which is seeking more than US$20 billion in external funding and now faces billions more in disaster costs - "to put in place a meaningful programme to turn around the economy" following Tuesday's disaster.

"I UNDERSTAND YOUR ANGER"

Macron's visit to the small Mediterranean country, a French protectorate during colonial times, was the first by a foreign head of state since the disaster.

French President Emmanuel Macron visits the devastated site of the explosion at the port of Beirut
French President Emmanuel Macron visits the devastated site of the explosion at the port of Beirut, Lebanon on Aug 6, 2020. (Photo: Thibault Camus/Pool via REUTERS)

The French president visited Beirut's harbourside blast zone, a wasteland of blackened ruins, rubble and charred debris where a 140m-wide crater has filled with seawater.

As he inspected a devastated pharmacy, crowds outside vented their fury at the country's "terrorist" leadership, shouting "revolution" and "the people want an end to the regime!".

Later Macron was thronged by survivors who pleaded with him to help get rid of their reviled ruling elite.

READ: Lebanon gives investigators 4 days to find culprits of Beirut explosion as international aid arrives

READ: Dazed and wounded, Lebanese emerge from Beirut blast angry at leaders

Another woman implored Macron to keep French financial aid out of the reach of Lebanese officials, accused by many of their people of rampant graft and greed.

"I guarantee you that this aid will not fall into corrupt hands," the president pledged.

Macron later told BFMTV he was not presenting Lebanon's leadership with a "diktat" after some of the political class criticised his remarks as interference.

"SYSTEM HAS TO GO"

Compounding their woes, Lebanon recorded 255 coronavirus cases Thursday - its highest single-day infection tally - after the blast upended a planned lockdown and sent thousands streaming into overflowing hospitals.

The disaster death toll rose from 137 to 149 on Thursday evening, the health ministry said, and was expected to further rise as rescue workers kept digging through the rubble.

Even as they counted their dead, many Lebanese were consumed with anger over the blast.

A soldier stands at the devastated site of the explosion at the port of Beirut
A soldier stands at the devastated site of the explosion at the port of Beirut, Lebanon on Aug 6, 2020. (Photo: Thibault Camus/Pool via REUTERS)

"We can't bear more than this. This is it. The whole system has got to go," said 30-year-old Mohammad Suyur.

The small demonstration on Thursday night, as well as a flood of angry social media posts, suggested the disaster could reignite a cross-sectarian protest movement that erupted in October but faded because of the grinding economic hardship and the coronavirus pandemic.

READ: What we know about the Beirut explosions so far

READ: Lebanese bride happy to be alive after Beirut explosion cuts short wedding video

Prime Minister Hassan Diab and President Michel Aoun have promised to put the culprits responsible for the disaster behind bars.

A military prosecutor announced 16 port staff had been detained over the blast.

But trust in institutions is low and few on Beirut's streets hold out hope for an impartial inquiry.

Lebanon's President Michel Aoun welcomes French President Emmanuel Macron upon his arrival at
Lebanon's President Michel Aoun welcomes French President Emmanuel Macron upon his arrival at the airport in Beirut, Lebanon on Aug 6, 2020. (Photo: Dalati Nohra/Handout via REUTERS)

Amid the fury and gloom, the explosion's aftermath has also yielded countless uplifting examples of spontaneous solidarity.

Business owners swiftly posted offers to repair doors, paint damaged walls or replace shattered windows for free.

Lebanon's diaspora, believed to be nearly three times the tiny country's five million population, has rushed to launch fundraisers and wire money to loved ones.

In Beirut, volunteers handled much of the cleanup.

Husam Abu Nasr, a 30-year-old volunteer, said: "We don't have a state to take these steps, so we took matters into our own hands."

Source: Agencies/ic

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