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Security forces tear-gassed protesters trying to reach the parliament building in Beirut on Thursday night as anger against government incompetence raged following the explosion that devastated the city and killed at least 154 people.

In streets darkened by electricity failure, protesters chanted “revolution”, the slogan that came to represent the mass demonstrations over official corruption and inequality that erupted in October last year.

“What are they protecting?” Aya Majzoub, Human Rights Watch’s Lebanon researcher, wrote on Twitter after security forces used tear gas against the crowd.

“A hollow, destroyed building that used to be inhabited by politicians that have lost all credibility?”

On Friday, Hamad Hassan, Lebanon’s health minister, said the death toll from the deadly blast had risen to 154, according to state news agency NNA.

President Michel Aoun said that the investigation into the explosion had still not determined the cause, adding that the authorities were looking into the possibility of “external interference”, as well as whether it was an accident or the result of negligence. 

“The cause of the explosion has not yet been determined, as there is a possibility of external interference via a missile, bomb or any other action,” said Mr Aoun, according to local media, adding that he had asked French president Emmanuel Macron, who visited on Thursday, “to provide us with aerial photos of the explosion”. 

“If they don’t have them then we will ask other countries to determine whether the attack was external or [caused by] fire,” said Mr Aoun.

While most evidence has so far pointed towards catastrophic negligence by authorities from customs to the judiciary, US president Donald Trump on Tuesday suggested that the explosion was a deliberate attack. He said he had spoken to some of his top generals who believed that a bomb may have been responsible for the explosion. A day later, Mark Esper, his defence secretary, appeared to contradict the president, saying most people believed it was an accident.

Officials in Israel, which fought a month-long war with Lebanese militant group Hizbollah in 2006 and whose forces sporadically clash with the group across the border, have denied that the Jewish state had any involvement in the explosion. 

Mr Aoun’s comments came as bodies were still being pulled from the wreckage in the blast zone, and ahead of an address by Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbollah, the political party designated a terror group by the US, UK and some other countries including Germany.

On Thursday, Mr Macron toured battered neighbourhoods where volunteers were shifting rubble and sweeping broken glass. His appearance on the streets of Beirut was a stark contrast to Lebanese leaders who have mostly not ventured out in public, their absence highlighting the gulf between the political elite and citizens affected by the explosion.

People are enraged not just by official failures that allowed the catastrophe to happen — the 2,750 tons of explosive chemical left at Beirut’s port for six years — but by the lack of state support in the aftermath of the disaster. Most relief efforts have been locally led, and there has been scant government advice or leadership.

Riot police try to push back anti-government protesters in Beirut on Thursday
Riot police try to push back anti-government protesters in Beirut on Thursday © Hassan Ammar/AP

And while the cabinet has announced a probe into the blast, few trust the government to conduct an investigation into its own failings. Human rights groups have called for an independent, international investigation.

According to the prime minister’s office, “all officials who knew about the ammonium nitrate” that caused the explosion have been placed under house arrest and subject to a travel ban. That list includes customs officials, judges and former ministers, all of whom have been revealed to have had knowledge of the ammonium nitrate store, but the office said it could not confirm individual names.

Meanwhile, Lebanon’s central bank has frozen accounts belonging to the head of Beirut’s port, the director of Lebanese customs and five other officials, according to an order by the Banque du Liban’s special investigations committee that was circulated online.

Politicians who have appeared in Beirut — notably former prime minister Saad Hariri and current justice minister Marie-Claude Najm — have been met with anger. While talking with clean-up volunteers on Thursday, Ms Najm was shouted at and pelted with water.

Ms Najm is from the new cabinet formed in January after Mr Hariri’s administration resigned in the face of the anti-government protests.

The current cabinet is tasked with steering Lebanon through a vicious economic crisis, but has been unable to stop the freefall, which the government itself expects will leave 60 per cent of Lebanese below the poverty line by the end of the year.

Additional reporting by Asmaa al-Omar in Istanbul

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