Lebanese vent rage against their leaders after blast; protesters gather

BEIRUT (Reuters) – As Beirut mourned its dead and grappled with the scale of rebuilding after this week’s massive blast, some Lebanese angered by their government’s response called on foreign states on Saturday to topple their leaders and run the country.

Several hundred protesters began gathering in Martyrs’ Square in the city centre for a demonstration to criticise the government’s handling of the biggest explosion in Beirut’s history. The blast in the port killed 154 people, injured 5,000 and destroyed a swathe of the city.

The protesters had mock wooden scaffolds with nooses, and one placard read: “Step down or hang”.

The government has promised to hold those responsible to account.

Some residents, struggling to clean up shattered homes, complain the government they see as corrupt – there had been months of protests against its handling of a deep economic crisis before this week’s disaster – has let them down again.

“We have no trust in our government,” said university student Celine Dibo as she scrubbed blood off the walls of her shattered apartment building. “I wish the United Nations would take over Lebanon.”

Several people said they were not at all surprised that French President Emmanuel Macron had visited their gutted neighbourhoods near the epicentre of the blast this week while Lebanese leaders had not.

“We are living in ground zero. I hope another country would just take us over. Our leaders are a bunch of corrupt people,” said psychologist Maryse Hayek, 48, whose parents’ house was destroyed in the explosion.

Lebanon’s Kataeb Party, a Christian group that opposes the government backed by the Iran-aligned Hezbollah, announced on Saturday the resignation of its three lawmakers from parliament.

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“I invite all honourable (lawmakers) to resign so that the people can decide who will govern them, without anybody imposing anything to them,” said party chief Samy Gemayel, announcing the move during the funeral of a leading member of the group who died in the explosion.

Macron, who visited Beirut on Thursday, promised angry crowds that aid to rebuild the city would not fall into “corrupt hands”. He will host a donor conference for Lebanon via video-link on Sunday, his office said.

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.

President Michel Aoun said on Friday an investigation would examine whether it was caused by a bomb or other external interference. Aoun said the investigation would also weigh if the blast was due to negligence or an accident. Twenty people had been detained so far, he added.

‘WE CAN’T AFFORD TO REBUILD’

Some residents wondered how they would ever rebuild their lives.

Tearing up, Bilal Hassan used his bare hands to try to remove debris from his home. He has been sleeping on a dusty couch besides pieces of splintered glass.

When his three wounded teenage children ran for their lives they left blood stains on the staircase and walls.

“There is really nothing we can do. We can’t afford to rebuild and no one is helping us,” he said, standing beside a large teddy bear that was blown across his home, and a damaged photograph of him and his wife.

Bulldozers ploughed through the wreckage of mangled homes and long rows of flattened cars as soldiers stood by. Volunteers with shovels streamed through streets.

Danielle Chemaly said her charity organisation, whose headquarters was destroyed, had provided assistance to 70 families who were left homeless.

“We have given people initial help but we don’t know what we can do for families in the future. It requires major projects,” she said.

Officials have said the blast could have caused losses amounting to $15 billion. That is a bill that Lebanon cannot pay after already defaulting on a mountain of debt – exceeding 150% of economic output – and with talks stalled on a lifeline from the International Monetary Fund.

AID FROM ABROAD

France and other countries have rushed emergency aid to Lebanon, including doctors, and tons of health equipment and food. The blast destroyed Lebanon’s only major grain silo and U.N. agencies are helping provide emergency food and medical aid.

Arab League Chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit said after a meeting with Aoun on Saturday he would seek to mobilise Arab efforts to provide support to Lebanon. Also speaking after meeting Aoun, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said his country is ready to help rebuild the port.

For ordinary Lebanese, the scale of destruction is overwhelming.

“It felt like a mini atomic bomb,” said George Rohana, sitting beside a supermarket that was demolished.

“Now we have a situation where people are stealing metals and other items from the destruction,” he said. “The other day someone walked away with a broken toaster.”

Marita Abou Jawda was handing out bread and cheese to victims of the blast.

“Macron offered to help and our government has not done anything. It has always been like that,” she said. “After Macron visited I played the French national anthem all day in my car.”

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