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Tear gas and clashes in Beirut amid fury over massive explosion

Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

BEIRUT -- Demonstrators stormed government buildings, lighting fires and fighting pitched street battles with security forces in the Lebanese capital on Saturday, even as the country's beleaguered prime minister called for early parliamentary elections.

The protests, which drew thousands to Beirut's downtown district, come days after a massive explosion leveled wide swaths of the city's waterfront district, killing at least 150 people and wounding 5,000 more. Many blame the incident on negligence by the country's ruling politicians in allowing the ongoing storage of explosives at the city's port.

"I'm here today because we have nothing to lose. We're here for this government to fall, all of it. They're supposed to protect us and help us? They have no honor," said May Dabbous, a mother of four children -- all of whom were participating in the protests -- as she watched from a building in Beirut's downtown district.

"I don't want them to leave" the protests, she said. "They have to stay here until those politicians leave."

Nearby, activists marched with mock gallows -- a symbol for the #String -- Up -- The -- Gallows campaign that saw enraged Beirutis call for the hanging of leading politicians for what the protesters see as the state corruption that resulted in Tuesday's blast. Behind them, a banner strung on a billboard read, "Justice to the victims. Revenge from the regime."

The explosion resulted from the ignition of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate -- a chemical compound used as a fertilizer and as an explosive -- that had been stored in Beirut's port for more than six years, despite repeated requests by customs officials for it to be removed. A fire on Tuesday in an adjacent warehouse soon spread to the cache of ammonium nitrate. The resulting blast was felt as far off as Cyprus, more than 100 miles away. In addition to those that were flattened, thousands of buildings in Beirut's eastern district are now all but uninhabitable, with hundreds of thousands left homeless.

 

For many on the streets on Saturday, it was the last straw.

"I have no home. I have no job. I have nothing to eat. They want to shoot me? Let them," said Ghada Mohsen, a 30-year-old woman wearing a Lebanese flag as a cape as she stamped on a picture of President Michel Aoun.

Down the street, demonstrators ripped up pavement to lob at riot-ready security forces, who shot volleys of tear gas and incendiary devices as well as what activists said were rounds of gunfire. Lebanon's internal security force announced on Twitter that one of its personnel died after "trouble-making killers" attacked him in a hotel downtown.

Meanwhile, bands of protesters broke into government buildings, including those of the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Economy and Trade. Some set fires in offices, while others tossed reams of paper out of windows as crowds below cheered.

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