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Police Fire Tear Gas As Thousands Express Outrage Over Beirut Explosion

Thousands thronged downtown Beirut on Saturday to voice their outrage over government corruption and negligence, which they blame for Tuesday's deadly explosion that killed more than 150 people.
Bilal Hussein
Thousands thronged downtown Beirut on Saturday to voice their outrage over government corruption and negligence, which they blame for Tuesday's deadly explosion that killed more than 150 people.

Thousands of protesters outraged over this week's deadly explosion in Beirut amassed in the Lebanese capital on Saturday, as public anger gave way to clashes with police and the storming of the nation's foreign ministry.

Blame for the blast — which killed more than 150 people and injured thousands more — has been widely cast on a culture of corruption and negligence among the nation's ruling class.

Demonstrators set up a mock gallows, hanging cardboard cutouts of politicians, including the country's president, Michel Aoun, and Prime Minister Hassan Diab.

Skirmishes between protesters began early in the day with protesters hurling rocks and police firing tear gas. Gunfirewas heard at the city's Martyrs' Square, according to the BBC, and multiple news organizations reported that protesters had entered the foreign ministry.

Once inside the ministry, demonstrators burned a framed photo of Aoun, according to Reuters. The Associated Press reported that protesters were claiming the building as headquartersfor a "revolution" and calling on the government to resign.

At least 170 people were reported injured during the protests, according to the Lebanese Red Cross. Citing police, Reuters reported that at least one officer was killed after being chased and falling down an elevator shaft.

Responding to the protests, Diab took to the airwaves to call for early elections. Diab said it was the only solution to the unrest and announced plans for a draft bill.

Also on Saturday, three legislators from the country's Christian opposition Kataeb Party announced they were resigning from parliament out of a show of anger. An official with the party was killed in this week's blast, according to the Associated Press.

Tuesday's explosion at a port warehouse that held 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate — a chemical used for fertilizer and as an ingredient in bombs — followed repeated warnings to authorities about the facility and came amid growing strife in Lebanon, including over the toll taken by the coronavirus pandemic.

Many hospitals already treating COVID-19 patients struggled to meet the influx of injured caused by the blast. Some hospitals were severely damaged or destroyed by the explosion, whose shock waves wrought destruction on large swaths of Beirut.

Even before the dual crises of the explosion and the pandemic, Lebanon had been roiled by an economic collapse and power outages blamed on mismanagement and corruption. Massive protests erupted late last year but had dwindled.

The explosion has introduced concerns about food shortages, as the port's decimation is expected to significantly interfere with imports.

Since the explosion, blame and scrutiny has been cast around over how ammonium nitrate was allowed to sit at Beirut's port for some six years. The cache arrived at the portin 2013 aboard a ship said to be bound for Mozambique. After a dispute over port fees, the cargo was impounded and stored in a warehouse.

The port's customs director has said he sounded the alarm for years. In the aftermath of the blast, several port officials were placed under house arrest. The most widespread scrutiny has landed on the country's politicians.

Aoun and Diab have responded by forming an investigative committee, while various members of the country's ruling class, many of whom have stakes in the port, have attempted to place responsibility elsewhere.

On Friday, the influential Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah sought to distance itself from any blame for the blast, with the group's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, categorically stating, "Hezbollah does not run or control Beirut's port and does not interfere with it."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason Slotkin