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Protests in Beirut Over Massive Blast  08/08 10:08

   

   BEIRUT (AP) -- Police fired tear gas and clashed with demonstrators in 
Lebanon's capital on Saturday at the start of a planned protest over this 
week's massive explosion that devastated large parts of Beirut and killed more 
than 150 people.

   Thousands of people poured into Beirut's main square, where they set up 
symbolic nooses to hang politicians whose corruption and negligence they blame 
for Tuesday's explosion at the Port of Beirut.

   The huge blast was caused by thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate 
improperly stored at the port for more than six years, apparently set off by a 
fire. It was the biggest in Lebanon's history and caused an estimated $10-15 
billion worth of damage, according to Beirut's governor. It also left hundreds 
of thousands of people homeless.

   The protest Saturday was the first significant demonstration since the 
explosion and organizers planned to hold a symbolic funeral for the dead. As 
the protest got underway however, small groups of young men began throwing 
stones at security forces. Near parliament, riot police fired tear gas at 
protesters who hurled stones and tried to jump over barriers that close the 
road leading to the legislature. The protesters later set on fire a truck that 
was fortifying barriers on a road leading to parliament.

   The gathering at Martyrs Square and outside the parliament building and 
government headquarters came amid popular anger against Lebanon's political 
leadership. The country's ruling class, made up mostly of former civil war-era 
leaders, is blamed for widespread corruption, incompetence and mismanagement 
that contributed to Tuesday's explosion.

   The army issued a statement reminding the protesters to act peacefully and 
abstain from closing roads or attacking public or private property. Police also 
issued a statement after the protests began urging people to act "in a 
civilized way far away from violence."

   The protest came as senior officials from the Middle East and Europe arrived 
in Lebanon in a show of solidarity with the tiny country that is still in shock 
suffered after Tuesday's blast.

   Lebanon is mired in its worst economic and financial crisis in decades 
making it difficult for many people who had their properties damaged to fix 
them.

   In a show of anger, the president of the Christian opposition Kataeb party 
said its three legislators have decided to resign from Parliament over this 
week's "disaster." Sami Gemayel called on every "honorable" member of 
parliament to resign and work for the "birth of a new Lebanon."

   A senior Kataeb party official was killed in the blast, which claimed at 
least 154 lives, wounded more than 5,000 people and laid waste to the country's 
largest port and nearby areas.

   Also killed were 43 Syrians, the country's embassy in Beirut said. Lebanon 
is home to some 1 million Syrian refugees.

   The Dutch foreign ministry said Saturday that Hedwig Waltmans-Molier, the 
wife of the Netherlands' ambassador to Lebanon, had also died of injuries 
sustained in Tuesday's blast.

   Documents that surfaced after the blast showed that for years officials had 
been repeatedly warned that the presence of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate at 
the port posed a grave danger, but no one acted to remove it. Officials have 
been blaming one another since the explosion and 19 people have been detained 
including the port's chief, head of Lebanon's customs department and his 
predecessor.

   "We will support Lebanon through all available means," Ahmed Aboul Gheit, 
the secretary-general of the 22-member Arab League told reporters after meeting 
President Michel Aoun on Saturday morning. Aboul Gheit said he would take part 
in a donors conference for Lebanon in France on Sunday and convey Lebanon's 
demands to the international community.

   Later on Saturday the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, 
arrived in Beirut for a brief visit. Turkey's vice president and the country's 
foreign minister arrived Saturday morning and met Aoun, saying that Ankara was 
ready to help rebuild Beirut's port and evacuate some of the wounded from 
Lebanon to Turkey for treatment.

   At the site of the blast in Beirut's port, workers were still searching for 
dozens of people who have been missing since Tuesday. Bulldozers were also seen 
removing debris near the giant grain silos that are still partly standing.

   International aid has been flowing to Lebanon for days and several field 
hospitals have been set up around Beirut to help treat the wounded.

   President Donald Trump said Friday that he had spoken by telephone with Aoun 
and French President Emmanuel Macron, who paid a brief visit to Lebanon on 
Thursday. Trump did not mention the investigation, but noted that medical 
supplies, food and water were being sent from the United States, along with 
emergency responders, technicians, doctors and nurses.

   The ammonium nitrate, a chemical used in fertilizers and explosives, 
originated from a cargo ship called MV Rhosus that had been traveling from the 
country of Georgia to Mozambique in 2013. It made an unscheduled detour to 
Beirut as the Russian shipowner was struggling with debts and hoped to earn 
some extra cash in Lebanon. Unable to pay port fees and reportedly leaking, the 
ship was impounded.

   In 2014, the material was moved from the ship and placed in a warehouse at 
the port where it stayed until the explosion.

 
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