Lebanese protesters stormed government buildings in Beirut and temporarily took over the Foreign Ministry, as more than 110 people were wounded during mass anti-government demonstrations.
The country’s prime minister Hassan Diab also announced late on Saturday that he would introduce a draft bill to parliament to allow early elections.
Chanting “down with the regime”, thousands had taken to the streets wielding nooses and demanding accountability for the blasts, which killed more than 150 people and wounded a further 6,000.
Shots sounded through the streets as riot police fired volleys of tears gas and rubber bullets at protesters who threw back rocks in the capital, brought to a standstill by the skirmishes.
The Lebanese Red Cross said that more than 110 were wounded and a further 32 taken to hospital. A police spokesperson later confirmed that an officer had been killed after falling down an elevator shaft while being chased by protesters.
Dozens of demonstrators meanwhile broke into the foreign ministry, where they burnt a framed portrait of the president Michel Aoun, a representative for many of a corrupt political class seen to be culpable for both the explosions and the country’s deep economic crisis. Security forces later retook control of the building.
Banners reading “Beirut – capital of the revolution” were hung across the front of the building as furious demonstrators chanted “down with the presidents” and “all of them means all of them” – a central slogan to the protest movement. The ministry of environment was also set on fire.
Lebanese citizens had been gathering en masse since Saturday morning, demanding accountability for the blasts that devastated the capital, expecting to leave more than 300,000 homeless.
The exact cause of what is being called the largest non-nuclear blast in modern history, is not known. But Mr Aoun admitted on Friday night that he knew the warehouse that caught fire at Beirut port had dangerous explosives in it. The ignition of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored poorly in the port is thought to have caused the massive blast.
“We are a beautiful, resilient and educated country with talented and resourceful people – all of that has been squandered by our corrupt government,” said protester Jihan, 60, who held a Lebanese flag, surrounded by her entire family.
“They destroyed my home. We are here tonight to take the country back before we lose it, and our lives, for forever,” she added.
A few streets away near Martyr’s Square, tensions soared when protesters screamed at members of the security forces: “who is going to feed your children and give them healthcare? You’re the same as us”.
A group set fire to bins forcing one of the main roads shut, as the security forces stormed the protest lines beating anyone who would not move.
Earlier in the day in the main protest square protesters had hung nooses along a wooden frame that they said were meant for the politicians they accused of destroying the country and “murdering the people many times over”.
Within hours of the rallies erupting, security forces had fired tear gas into the crowds, many of whom were carrying brooms and shovels from the clean up efforts in the surrounding destroyed streets.
“We are all against the government and want to see the politicians hang,” said Ghada Agha, 48, whose advertising business and home were both destroyed in the blast leaving her jobless, penniless and homeless.
“Our president put us in this and situation – he has killed so many times over, and we cannot survive any more.
“They have destroyed our homes, our businesses they stole our money, our savings, and our future.”
Many of those gathered said that Lebanon was already on its knees due to an unprecedented financial crisis, that had seen food prices soar and families starve, as well as 20 hour power cuts a day over chronic fuel shortages before Tuesday’s devastating blasts.
Soldiers in vehicles mounted with machine guns patrolled the area.
“Really the army is here? Are you here to shoot us? Join us and we can fight the government together,” a woman yelled.
“Resign or hang,” read another placard.
Among those joining the protesters were many injured in the blast.
Her arm in a sling, Carmen Khoury, 48, a university administrator told The Independent she was pinned under a car from the pressure wave and the woman standing next to her was killed.
“We have the most corrupt government in the world, they have done nothing to protect their people. Even now after the explosion, they have left us to look after ourselves,” she said.
She explained she was part of an activist group that was housing those left homeless by the explosion as well as helping clear the debris, as no government initiative had been launched to deal with the crisis.
“I have lived through two wars and this is truly the worst days I have ever had to deal with.”
Additional reporting by Reuters
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