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Police on Saturday rained tear gas and rubber bullets on thousands of Lebanese demonstrators who blame the government for a massive explosion that killed more than 150 people and devastated much of the capital.

As downtown Beirut erupted in clashes between security forces and protesters, Prime Minister Hassan Diab called for early elections and said he was prepared to “hold the responsibility of [the premiership] for two months”. The Lebanese Red Cross said some 238 people were wounded in the violence.

Public rage with Lebanon’s political elite has boiled over, with many Lebanese blaming entrenched government corruption and mismanagement for the blast at Beirut port on Tuesday.

The explosion was caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a chemical compound which can be used for fertilisers and explosives, that had been stored in a warehouse at the port for six years.

Pia Chikani, 34, was carrying a noose, the symbol adopted for a demonstration at Martyrs’ Square near the parliament, as protesters accused their leaders of being responsible for the deaths in the blast.

“All our politicians are murderers,” said Ms Chikani, a French history teacher, as the boom of tear gas cannons echoed in the streets. “They deserve to suffer like [the families] of the innocent people who died.”

The level of violence intensified during the evening, and video footage showed some soldiers beating a group of protesters. The security force’s use of tear gas was so indiscriminate that behind police and army lines policemen doused themselves in water to alleviate the stinging.

Some protesters occupied state buildings including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and broke into the headquarters of Lebanon’s powerful banking lobby group. Internal Security Forces said one policeman had died in a fall.

Fouad Abouchedid was wearing gardening gloves when a tear gas canister shot into his hand. The 22-year-old graduate splashed Pepsi on his face and a friend handed him an onion. “We have to keep up the pressure,” Mr Abouchedid said. “As long as people need us, we’ll stay.”

Defiant protesters on the streets included veterans of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990. Wearing a motorbike helmet and goggles round his chin, Boutros, 70, said: “I’m not gonna leave until I dump one of those thieves in the garbage.

“We are earning our bread with our sweat and honour, we are working as much as we can,” he said. “We just want to remove those thieves, who stole our money and honour.”

Protesters chanted against Michel Aoun, the president, who said on Friday that an investigation had yet to determine the cause of the blast. He has rejected calls for an international probe into the explosion, suggesting it could have been an accident, negligence or “external interference”.

Many Lebanese blame the country’s political class, long criticised for corruption and mismanagement, for the explosion which came as the nation was already grappling with its worst economic crisis in decades. Food prices have soared, the currency has collapsed and the state utility provides only a few hours electricity a day.

Mass protests last year forced the previous government to resign in October. The coronavirus outbreak put a halt to demonstrations, but anger has continued to simmer as the economic crisis has deepened and political infighting has stymied talks with the IMF for an international bailout.

The explosion killed at least 158 people and wounded 5,000, while causing huge damage across Beirut. Many people are still missing and the death toll is expected to rise.

A government spokesman said the director-general of state security had requested an investigation into the ammonium nitrate in late January.

Four months later, a military court was asked to “take care of the matter” but a judge said it did not fall under its jurisdiction.

A public prosecutor was then contacted about the matter and a “file” was sent to the prime minister’s office on July 20. It was then passed on to a general, who sent the file to the ministries of public works and justice.

The spokesman said the ministry received the file on August 4, adding that “the delay was due to lockdown being imposed”. 

“The tragedy took place later that day,” the spokesman said. “The current cabinet received the file 14 days prior to the explosion and acted on it in a matter of days. Previous administrations had over six years and did nothing.”

The suspected source of the ammonium nitrate is a shipment destined for Mozambique.

In 2013, the Rhosus, a Russian-owned ship flying a Moldovan flag, set out from the Georgian port of Batumi for Mozambique carrying 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, according to documents published five years ago by lawyers representing the ship’s crew in a dispute.

A view of destroyed port area four days after the explosions © WAEL HAMZEH/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The ship ran into technical problems during the voyage and docked at Beirut, where officials barred it from sailing further. The ammonium nitrate was then discharged to Beirut’s port, according to the lawyers’ documents.

Military police undertaking the investigation have so far interviewed 21 people, including a former minister, according to a government source familiar with the process on Friday.

The person said another former minister would face questioning on Saturday. There are 19 people in detention related to the case, the person said. 

In a televised speech on Friday, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbollah, a Shia Islamist political party and a US-designated terror group, denied that any Hizbollah military equipment was at the port — “neither a weapons store nor missiles . . . nor nitrates”. He said the investigation would prove that.

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