Beirut police fire teargas at protesters demanding justice over explosion

Bethan McKernan and Martin Chulov in Beirut and Emma Graham-Harrison
·4-min read

Police in Beirut fired teargas and rubber bullets at thousands of people who had turned out to demand accountability for one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions the world has seen. They also shot live ammunition in the air, in an attempt to disperse the furious crowds.

Driven by anger at the corruption and incompetence that appears to have fostered Tuesday’s tragedy, people gathered from early afternoon in the city’s central Martyrs Square, where activists have erected a mock gallows for Lebanon’s top politicians.

The protesters chanted: “The people want the fall of the regime,” and held posters saying: “Leave, you are all killers.” More than 150 people died in the blast, about 6,000 were injured and at least 60 are still missing, according to the health ministry.

As the dust from the explosion settles, its political fallout is just beginning to be felt, reviving a protest movement that last year toppled the prime minister but left the system he presided over almost intact.

Rachel Raedi, 20, came to the protest carrying a placard with a picture of her friend Rawan Msto, who died from blast injuries in an intensive care unit on Friday. Underneath Msto’s smiling face was the bleak message “My government killed me.”

“We were here in October, and so was our friend, she was campaigning for change to make Lebanon a better place, and now she is dead,” Raedi said.

When one group tried to break through a barrier blocking a street leading to parliament, some throwing stones and others using the same shovels they had deployed for rescue and clear up operations, security forces used the first teargas of the day. Soon clouds of stinging white gas were drifting over the area.

Many of the children and older people who had gathered expecting a peaceful march to both honour the victims and call for change, left as the violence intensified.

Earlier, Lebanon’s Kataeb party, a Christian group that opposes the government backed by the Iran-aligned Hezbollah, announced the resignation of its three MPs on Saturday, after one of their senior officials had been killed in the blast.

Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, vowed on Friday that all officials responsible for the explosion would be brought to justice regardless of their positions.

Few in Beirut, however, have any confidence that a government that allowed an enormous stockpile of deadly explosive to sit for years in flimsy sheds in the heart of Beirut can be trusted to investigate the accident.

The wife of the Dutch ambassador to Lebanon was named as the latest victim. Hedwig Waltmans-Molier, 55, died on Saturday after being seriously injured by the explosion as she stood in her Beirut home, the Dutch foreign ministry said.

Five days after the blast, the chances of finding anyone else alive under the rubble are fading, even though professional search and rescue teams have taken over the search for survivors.

Lebanon had been roiled for months by popular anger over the country’s rapid economic collapse, which cratered the value of the national currency and destroyed citizens’ life savings virtually overnight.

The movement faded in the face of economic pressure and the coronavirus but the blast has revived and expanded frustration with the ruling elite.

“Last year I left protesting to my son,” said said Roger Issa, 61, an estate agent. “(Now) I’m down here in solidarity, because the government are all criminals.

“At this point I don’t know if us Lebanese can actually solve this problem any more, we need other countries to tell them this is not the way a state should be run, to stop them from doing this to us.”

In a sign of disgust with the entire political class, one of the country’s leading broadcasters, LBC, announced it would no longer broadcast any political speeches or statements by leaders about a promised investigation into the catastrophe.

The unprecedented boycott of Lebanese leaders and officials meant neither speeches by Aoun, or the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, were broadcast on LBC on Friday.

France called for an international inquiry into the disaster, already regarded as one of the biggest industrial accidents in history.

Aoun, however, has already rejected widespread calls for an international investigation, telling a reporter he saw it as an attempt to “dilute the truth”. He also suggested that “foreign interference” may have been to blame, something many Lebanese see as laying the groundwork for powerful players to avoid justice.