BEIRUT: Security forces fired tear gas and clashed with stone-throwing demonstrators Saturday in Beirut, and a group of protesters stormed the foreign ministry amid mounting fury over this week's explosion that devastated much of the city and killed nearly 160 people. Dozens were still missing and nearly 6,000 people injured.
Activists who called for the protest set up symbolic nooses at Beirut's Martyrs' Square to hang politicians whose corruption and negligence they blame for Tuesday's blast.
The explosion was fueled by thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate that had been improperly stored at the city's port for more than six years. Apparently set off by a fire, the blast was by far the biggest in Lebanon’s troubled history and caused an estimated $10 billion to 15 billion in damage, according to Beirut’s governor. It also damaged 6,200 buildings and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless.
The disaster has taken popular anger to a new level in a country already reeling from an unprecedented economic and financial crisis and near bankruptcy.
“Resignation or hang,” read a banner held by protesters, who also planned to hold a symbolic funeral for the dead. Some nooses were also set up along the bridges outside the Port.
Khodr Ghadir, 23, said the noose was for everyone who has been in power for the last 30 years. “What happened was a spark for people to return to the streets."
A placard listed the names of the dead, printed over a photo of the blast's enormous pink mushroom cloud. “We are here for you,” it read.
In a televised speech Saturday evening, Prime Minister Hassan Diab said the only solution was to hold early elections, which he planned to propose in a draft bill. He called on all political parties to put aside their disagreements and said he was prepared to stay in the post for two months to allow time for politicians to work on structural reforms.
The offer is unlikely to soothe the escalating fury on the street.
In central Beirut, some protesters threw stones at security forces who responded with heavy tear gas. Near parliament, protesters tried to jump over barriers that closed the road leading to the legislature. The protesters later set on fire a truck that was fortifying barriers on a road leading to parliament.
At least 142 people were hurt in the clashes, and 32 of them needed to be taken to the hospital, according to the Red Cross. Several protesters were seen being carried away with blood running down their faces. At one point, gunfire could be heard, but its source was not immediately clear.
In the capital's hard-hit Achrafieh district, a group of protesters, including retired army officers, stormed the building of the foreign ministry, vowing to make it the headquarters for the “revolution.”
Retired army officer Sami Ramah read a statement on the steps of the ministry. “This authority must step down,” Ramah said. Some protesters entered the building and burned a few documents.
A mobile phone video showed a group of protesters also entering the empty building of the economy ministry. After nightfall, the protesters were still at the foreign ministry and vowed to enter the justice ministry
The gathering at Martyrs' Square and outside the parliament building and government headquarters came amid popular anger against Lebanon’s political leadership. The country’s ruling class, made up mostly of former civil war-era leaders, is blamed for incompetence and mismanagement that contributed to Tuesday’s explosion.
“The current leaders’ bloodline needs to end. We want the death of the old Lebanon and the birth of a new one," said Tarek, a 23-year-old university student who had prepared a mix of water and paint in a bottle to throw at the police. No peaceful protest would bring about change, he said.
The state, which is investigating the cause of the explosion, has been conspicuously absent from the ravaged streets of Beirut, with almost zero involvement in the cleanup, which has been left to teams of young volunteers with brooms who fanned out to sweep up broken glass and reopen roads.
The protest came as senior officials from the Middle East and Europe arrived in a show of solidarity with the tiny country that is still in shock.
In a show of anger, the president of the Christian opposition Kataeb party said its three legislators have decided to resign from Parliament over the disaster. Sami Gemayel called on every “honorable” member of parliament to step down and work for the “birth of a new Lebanon.”
A senior Kataeb party official was killed in the blast. Also killed were 43 Syrians, the country's embassy in Beirut said. Lebanon is home to some 1 million Syrian refugees.
The Dutch foreign ministry said Saturday that Hedwig Waltmans-Molier, the wife of the Netherlands’ ambassador to Lebanon, had also died from injuries suffered in the explosion.
Documents that surfaced after the blast showed that officials had been repeatedly warned for years that the presence of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate at the port posed a grave danger, but no one acted to remove it. Officials have been blaming one another, and 19 people have been detained, including the port’s chief, the head of Lebanon’s customs department and his predecessor.
“We will support Lebanon through all available means,” Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the secretary-general of the 22-member Arab League told reporters after meeting President Michel Aoun on Saturday morning. Aboul Gheit said he would take part in a donors conference for Lebanon in France on Sunday and convey Lebanon’s demands to the international community.
Later on Saturday, the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, arrived in Beirut for a brief visit. Turkey’s vice president and the country's foreign minister met Aoun and said that Ankara was ready to help rebuild Beirut's port and evacuate some of the wounded to Turkey for treatment.
At the site of the blast, workers continued searching for dozens of missing people. Bulldozers were also seen removing debris near a cluster of giant grain silos that were heavily damaged but still partly standing.
International aid has been flowing to Lebanon for days, and several field hospitals have been set up around Beirut to help treat the wounded.
President Donald Trump said Friday that he had spoken by telephone with Aoun and French President Emmanuel Macron, who paid a brief visit to Lebanon on Thursday. Trump noted that medical supplies, food and water were being sent from the United States, along with emergency responders, technicians, doctors and nurses.
The ammonium nitrate, a chemical used in fertilizers and explosives, originated from a cargo ship called MV Rhosus that had been traveling from the country of Georgia to Mozambique in 2013. It made an unscheduled detour to Beirut as the Russian shipowner was struggling with debts and hoped to earn some extra cash in Lebanon. Unable to pay port fees and reportedly leaking, the ship was impounded.
In 2014, the material was moved from the ship and placed in a warehouse at the port where it stayed until the explosion.