Beirut witnesses second day of protests as world leaders vow aid

Police fire tear gas near parliament as donors pledge ‘major resources’ after explosion

Protesters in Beirut have occupied government ministries, set fires and faced off against security forces in an outpouring of anger directed at Lebanon's leaders following the huge explosion that ripped through the city last week. Video: Reuters

 

Lebanese police fired tear gas to try to disperse rock-throwing protesters blocking a road near parliament in Beirut on Sunday in a second day of anti-government demonstrations triggered by last week’s devastating explosion.

Fire broke out at an entrance to Parliament Square as demonstrators tried to break into a cordoned-off area, TV footage showed. Protesters also broke into the housing and transport ministry offices.

Tuesday’s blast of more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate killed 158 people and injured more than 6,000, compounding months of political and economic collapse and prompting furious calls for the government to quit.

Riot police wearing body armour and carrying batons clashed with demonstrators as thousands converged on Parliament Square and nearby Martyrs’ Square, a Reuters correspondent said.

“We gave these leaders so many chances to help us and they always failed. We want them all out, especially Hizbullah, because it’s a militia and just intimidates people with its weapons,” Walid Jamal, an unemployed demonstrator, said, referring to the country’s most influential Iran-backed armed grouping that has ministers in the government.

The country’s top Christian Maronite cleric, Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai, said the cabinet should resign as it cannot “change the way it governs”.

“The resignation of an MP or a minister is not enough . . . the whole government should resign as it is unable to help the country recover,” he said in his Sunday sermon.

Information minister Manal Abdel Samad said she was resigning on Sunday, citing the explosion and the failure of the government to carry out reforms.

Violent scenes

Anger boiled over into violent scenes in central Beirut on Saturday. Those protests were the biggest since October when thousands of people took to the streets to demand an end to corruption, bad governance and mismanagement.

About 10,000 people gathered at Martyrs’ Square, which was transformed into a battle zone in the evening between police and protesters who tried to break down a barrier along a road leading to parliament. Some demonstrators stormed government ministries and the Association of Lebanese Banks.

One policeman was killed and the Red Cross said more than 170 people were injured in clashes.

“The police fired at me. But that won’t stop us from demonstrating until we change the government from top to bottom,” Younis Flayti (55), a retired army officer, said on Sunday.

Nearby, mechanic Sabir Jamali sat beside a noose attached to a wooden frame in Martyrs’ Square, intended as a symbolic warning to Lebanese leaders to resign or face hanging.

“Every leader who oppresses us should be hanged,” he said, adding he will protest again.

Lawyer Maya Habli surveyed the demolished port.

“People should sleep in the streets and demonstrate against the government until it falls,” she said.

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

The government has said it will hold those responsible to account.

World powers agreed at an emergency donor conference on Sunday to provide “major resources” to help Beirut recover, pledging not to fail Lebanon’s people.

Some 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in making fertilisers and bombs, exploded on Tuesday, hitting a city already reeling from the economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic.

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 has since been rebuilt.

“I worked in Kuwait for 15 years in sanitation to save money and build a gift shop in Lebanon and it was destroyed by the explosion,” said Maroun Shehadi.

“Nothing will change until our leaders just leave.” – Reuters