Thousands of protesters pelted Lebanon’s parliamentary precinct with rocks on Sunday, demanding the fall of the government in the wake of the catastrophic blast that destroyed parts of Beirut last week.
The violent rally took place around sunset, as an international donor conference launched to fund the enormous cost of recovery resolved that the country would not be abandoned.
Rioters fought running battles with police and soldiers, who had retreated inside the fortified central Beirut district, allowing demonstrators closer. They defended their position with teargas, while hundreds of men lobbed rubble from the blast over wrought iron walls. The crowds were determined to break into the compound and attack the legislature, whose members have been universally blamed for the widespread dysfunction that led to the disaster.
On Sunday, Lebanon’s information minister, Manal Abdel Samad, quit in the first government resignation since the explosion in the port killed more than 150 people and destroyed swathes of the capital, leaving a crater 43 metres (141ft) deep.
“After the enormous Beirut catastrophe, I announce my resignation from government,” she said in a statement, apologising to the Lebanese public for failing them.
Later the environment minister resigned. A statement from Damianos Kattar said he was leaving in solidarity with the victims and the government had lost a number of opportunities to reform.
Three more MPs also resigned from parliament on Sunday, the outskirts of which were besieged by demonstrators just before sunset. Though the large crowds seen in central Beirut on Saturday night had thinned, those who arrived on Sunday appeared determined to storm the precinct, setting the scene for major clashes with security forces.
At least 43 MPs would need to resign for the government to fall. So far nine have done so, and there are indications that many more will follow in the coming week, further loosening the already fragile government’s grip on power.
Ammonium nitrate is a common industrial chemical used mainly for fertiliser because it is a good source of nitrogen for plants. It is also one of the main components in mining explosives.
It is not explosive on its own, rather it is an oxidiser, drawing oxygen to a fire – and therefore making it much more intense. However, it ignites only under the right circumstances, and these are difficult to achieve.
While ammonium nitrate can in fact put out a fire, if the chemical itself is contaminated, for example with oil, it becomes highly explosive.
Meanwhile, at the nearby port, where about 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate detonated in the devastating explosion, search and rescue teams have all but given up hope of finding survivors. A French team had been attempting to reach an underground control room area after indications that up to seven men were in the site when the blast occurred, and may have survived. The head of the French team said five corpses had now been recovered.
“We worked non-stop for 48 hours from Thursday morning to try to reach this control room. Unfortunately we did not find a single survivor,” said Col Vincent Tissier.
A Lebanese military officer who coordinated rescue efforts across the docks site said: “After three days of search-and-rescue operations we can say we have finished the first phase, which involved the possibility of finding survivors. We can say we have fading hopes..”
At least 21 people remain missing, and 159 have been recorded as killed in what is being widely regarded as one of the worst industrial accidents in history. At least 6,000 people were wounded.
As recovery efforts continue, Beirut locals have begun to reflect on what the toll might have been were it not for coronavirus lockdown, which meant most bars and cafes were closed in the normally densely populated Gemmayze district, neighbouring the ports. “Can you imagine what that might have looked like on a normal night, or even two hours earlier when workers were still at the port?” asked Ali Houssein, a driver from south Lebanon. “I’d guess we’d be talking thousands dead.”
The damage to east and central Beirut was devastating nonetheless, and an online donor conference pledged to fund urgent humanitarian needs.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, said: “We must all work together to ensure that neither violence nor chaos prevails. It is the future of Lebanon that is at stake. We have to act quickly, and this aid has to go directly to the people who need it on the ground.”
A communique from the conference released late on Sunday said: “Further to emergency assistance, partners stand ready to support the economic and financial recovery of Lebanon, which requires, as part of a stabilization strategy, that Lebanese authorities fully commit themselves to timely measures and reforms expected by the Lebanese people.”
“In these horrendous times, Lebanon is not alone,” the statement said. “Assistance for an impartial, credible and independent inquiry on the explosion of 4 August is immediately needed and available, upon request of Lebanon.” The Lebanese president, Michel Aoun, had earlier described calls for an international probe as an attempt to “stall the investigation”.
The terms of an investigation and who should carry it out are central to political rancour almost a week after the explosion, with much of the country insisting that any local probe would be politicised and leaders claiming a foreign probe would be an affront to sovereignty.
As recovery attempts continued in ravaged parts of the capital, the Norwegian Refugee Council said humanitarian funding was needed immediately. “The one thing we shouldn’t forget in this response is that many Lebanese and refugees were already on their knees before the explosion,” said Carlo Gherardi, Lebanon country director for the NRC. “They need us the most and they need us right now. International donors have to honour their commitments, and disperse funds immediately – there’s no time to waste.”
Social and Economic Action for Lebanon, a US organisation which is helping coordinate fundraising, urged donors and individuals to channel donations through NGO structures.
“The Lebanese government has proved to incompetent, unreliable and corrupt,” said George Bitar, the group’s president. He said NGOs were a more efficient and direct way of getting funds to Lebanon, particularly amid a financial crisis that has limited people’s access to deposits.