Lebanese protesters regroup, clash with police as two ministers quit

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

TV footage showed fire breaking out at an entrance to Parliament Square as demonstrators tried to storm into a cordoned-off area.

Protesters also fanned out around the city, storming a couple of government ministries. They briefly took over the housing and transport ministry offices.

The conflagration has already resulted in two government ministers resigning amid the political fallout of the blast and months of economic crisis with both saying the government had failed to reform.

Tuesday’s explosion 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 Hezbollah, because it’s a militia and just intimidates people with its weapons,” Walid Jamal, an unemployed demonstrator, said.

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.

Lebanon’s environment minister resigned on Sunday, saying the government had lost a number of opportunities to reform, a statement said.

Damianos Kattar’s departure follows the resignation of Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad earlier on Sunday in the wake of the explosion.

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 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.

An emergency donor conference in France raised pledges worth nearly 253 million euros (S$400 million) for immediate humanitarian relief, the French presidency said.

For many, the blast 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.” (Source: The Straits Times)

 

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