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Rage erupts at first protest since deadly Beirut blast

Thousands of Lebanese protesters, some of them brandishing nooses, vented their anger on Saturday at politicians they blame for a deadly explosion that made hundreds of thousands homeless and shocked the world.

Rage erupts at first protest since deadly Beirut blast
A Lebanese protester waves the national flag during clashes in downtown Beirut on August 8, 2020, following a demonstration against a political leadership they blame for a monster explosion that killed more than 150 people and disfigured the capital Beirut. AFP
Demonstrators marched through streets devastated by the blast that levelled Beirut port on Tuesday, gathering in the central Martyrs' Square as their grief gave way to rage.

As scuffles broke out on the fringes, a group of protesters led by retired Lebanese army officers stormed the foreign ministry in central Beirut and declared it the "headquarters of the revolution".

Elsewhere, police fired tear gas to disperse groups of young men hurling stones and seeking to push towards parliament.

Two days after a landmark visit by French President Emmanuel Macron, diplomatic activity intensified in Beirut to drum up international support for the disaster-hit country ahead of a Sunday virtual aid conference.

For the fourth day running, Beirut woke up to the sound of broken glass being swept on the streets, its inhabitants still taking stock after one of the biggest blasts of its kind in recent history.

A fire at Beirut port on Tuesday ignited a stock of ammonium nitrate and triggered an explosion that was felt in neighbouring countries and destroyed entire neighbourhoods.

The explosion was widely perceived as a direct consequence of corruption and incompetence, perhaps the most egregious case of callousness on the part of a ruling elite that was already reviled.

'Criminals'

"You were corrupt, now you are criminals," read one banner at the demonstration, while protesters chanted: "Revenge, until this regime reaches an end."

"We are hanging the nooses because the same people have been ruling us for 30 years," said Jad, a 25-year-old man working in advertising.

"They have robbed us of everything. We have nothing left: no dreams, no future... no dignity, no money, and now, no houses," said Rita, 33, whose home was gutted by the blast.

"We should not be forced to live this way," she said after reaching Martyrs' Square, a short walk from the blast site.

Despite high tensions, fuelled by resentment among the demonstrators that security forces had not been deployed to help the public in the aftermath of the blast, the protest passed off relatively peacefully.

A few hundred metres away, rescue teams from all over the world searched the rubble on as the chances of finding survivors slipped away.

The health ministry said 158 people were confirmed to have died in the disaster, while at least 6,000 were wounded and 21 still missing.

The Netherlands announced that its ambassador's wife was among the dead.

The blast has prompted an impressive aid response from both inside and outside Lebanon, but demonstrators' chants and the mock gallows they set up in the street made it clear that people want heads to roll.

But some of Lebanon's leaders seemed to consider the outpouring of international solidarity as an opportunity to break the government's diplomatic isolation.

Foreign support

A virtual international donor conference launched by Macron, with US President Donald Trump and other top leaders in attendance, is scheduled for Sunday.

Lebanon defaulted on its debt for  the first time ever this year and the current leadership has so far failed to address the economic emergency and agree on the reforms needed to negotiate an international rescue package, despite intense Western pressure.

Speaking on Friday evening, Aoun said "the explosion has led to the lifting of the isolation".

Hassan Nasrallah, the chief of powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah, said the disaster had created "an opportunity" to get the world to work with Lebanon again.

Three senior diplomats were in Beirut Saturday in a show of solidarity with the disaster-hit city, where 300,000 people were made temporarily homeless by the port explosion.

Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit met top officials ahead of expected visits by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and the President of the European Council, Charles Michel.

High-stakes probe

But Aoun rejected calls backed by Macron for an international, independent investigation into the blast.

A total of 21 people have been detained so far, including Badri Daher, director-general of Lebanon's customs authority.

Christian MP Samy Gemayel announced Saturday during a funeral service for his Kataeb party's secretary general, who was killed in the explosion, that he and his two colleagues in parliament were resigning.

That brought to five the number of lawmakers who have quit since the blast.

Few Lebanese seemed to have any trust that the leadership would incriminate its own in an investigation chaired by some of the country's top officials.

Analyst Nasser Yassin of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, said Lebanon's reviled leaders were clearly seeking to take advantage of the situation.

"The fear is that the authorities will benefit from this great disaster and from the international and Arab attention they are getting," he said.

Topics: Lebanese protesters , Emmanuel Macron , blast , Hassan Nasrallah

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