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Rescuers give up hope of finding further survivors

As pressure mounts on gov’t, Beirut police use tear gas to disperse new protests

Second government minister quits as demonstrators clash with security forces amid mounting anger over massive port explosion blamed on corruption and incompetence

Words are written by Lebanese citizens in front of the scene of Tuesday's explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020. Public fury over the massive explosion in Beirut took a new turn Saturday night as protesters stormed government institutions and clashed for hours with security forces, who responded with heavy volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
Words are written by Lebanese citizens in front of the scene of Tuesday's explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020. Public fury over the massive explosion in Beirut took a new turn Saturday night as protesters stormed government institutions and clashed for hours with security forces, who responded with heavy volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AFP) — 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.

Friends of 20-year-old Lebanese Rawan Misto who was killed in Beirut port’s blast earlier this week hold her picture as they demand justice for the victims during anti-government protests which continued in the heart of the Lebanese capital for the second day in a row on August 9, 2020. – Security forces fired teargas and rubber bullets at thousands of protesters who took to the streets to demand accountability for the deadly explosion blamed on official negligence. The August 4 explosion devastated Beirut and took the lives of at least 158 people. (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP)

“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 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.”

Lebanese protesters, enraged by a deadly explosion blamed on government negligence, clash with security forces for the second evening near an access street to the parliament in central Beirut on August 9, 2020. . (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP)

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

The August 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.

Demonstrators march holding candles and flashlights honoring the victims of the deadly explosion at Beirut port which devastated large parts of the capital, in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

France said $250 million euros had been pledged at the conference.

The UN said some $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 United States 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.

This picture taken on August 9, 2020 shows nooses and a gallows hanging from the Martyrs’ Statue along with Lebanese national flags, at the Martyrs’ Square in the centre of Lebanon’s capital Beirut. – Lebanon’s political elite faced pressure from all sides after a deadly explosion blamed on official negligence, with the first cabinet resignation over the affair and angry protesters clashing with security forces. (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP)

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.

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