Politics

Lebanon government on brink over blast fallout

By AFP

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An aerial view taken August 9th, shows a general view of the port of Beirut, the damaged grain silo and the crater caused by the colossal explosion of a huge pile of ammonium nitrate that had languished for years in a port warehouse. The blast left a 43-metre deep crater. [AFP]

Lebanon's government was teetering Monday (August 10th) as ministers' resignations over the deadly Beirut port explosion threatened to snowball and protesters' fury on the scarred streets showed no sign of abating.

The under-fire cabinet, struggling to weather the political storm, was due to meet in the afternoon amid widespread demands for an end to an entrenched political system dominated by sectarian interests and family dynasties.

Six days after the enormous chemical blast which wreaked destruction across swathes of the capital and was felt as far away as the island of Cyprus, residents and volunteers were still clearing the debris off the streets.

International rescue teams with sniffer dogs and specialised equipment remained at work at the disaster's charred "ground zero", where the search was now for bodies and not survivors.

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Lebanese protestors, enraged by a deadly explosion blamed on government negligence, clash with security forces for the second evening near an access street to the parliament in central Beirut on August 9th. [Joseph Eid/AFP]

According to the health ministry, at least 158 people were killed in Lebanon's worst peacetime disaster, 6,000 were wounded and around 20 still missing.

The country's top officials have promised a swift and thorough investigation -- but they have stopped short of agreeing to an independent probe led by foreign experts as demanded by the protestors.

Four ministers have already decided they could no longer stand with a government that has shown little willingness to take the blame or to put state resources at the service of the victims.

Resignations

Lebanon's finance minister Ghazi Wazni stepped down Monday in the fourth resignation from a government under fire.

His resignation brings the entire government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab closer to collapsing over the explosion that has reignited angry street protests.

Marie-Claude Najm resigned as justice minister Monday, her office said, after the information and environment ministers stepped down earlier.

At least nine lawmakers also announced they would quit in protest, as have two senior members of the Beirut municipality. The government falls if one third of its 20 ministers resign.

The August 4th blast was so enormous that it altered the shape of not only Beirut's skyline but even of its Mediterranean coastline, leaving a 43-metre deep crater, a security official said Sunday.

But it remained to be seen whether the disaster will also have a lasting impact on Lebanon's political landscape.

Diab gave a short televised address Saturday evening to suggest early elections, but protestors, unconvinced, ransacked several ministries even as he spoke.

During a second evening of protests on Sunday, the rage sparked by the explosion had not relented, and violent street clashes flared again.

'Direct' aid

Demonstrators lamented that security forces were using tear gas against blast victims instead of helping them clean their wrecked homes and find a roof.

Many Lebanese are waiting to see how the aid delivery will navigate a sophisticated and deeply entrenched system of local and sectarian patronage.

Lebanese aid groups have warned foreign donors that any financial assistance risked being syphoned away.

The Beirut disaster has compounded Lebanon's dire economic crisis, which had dragged half of the country into poverty in recent months.

The obliteration of the port and its huge grain silos in a country hugely reliant on imports has sparked fears of food shortages in the coming weeks.

Adding to Lebanon's woes, coronavirus cases are reaching new highs almost every day, putting further strain on hospitals that are treating blast victims and the dozens wounded in the repression of the protests.

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