BEIRUT: Riot police clashed with protesters in central Beirut for a second day Sunday, as public rage mounted over a massive port explosion that devastated the city, killed 159 people and injured 6,000.
Riot police carrying batons clashed with demonstrators as thousands surrounded the area around Parliament and Martyrs' Square in Downtown Beirut.
Crowd numbers were significantly lower than the previous day’s “Judgment Day” protests which saw thousands of protesters gathered in Martyrs’ Square. More than 728 were injured and one policeman died in Saturday's protests.
But as numbers increased into Sunday evening, protesters managed to pull down a steel barrier in front of the well-protected Parliament in Downtown Beirut. Debris was set alight on streets surrounding Nijmeh Square.
“The people want the fall of the regime,” people chanted. Nearby, people held a candlelight vigil by Beirut’s port in memory of those who lost their lives in the explosion.
Relative calm returned to the streets hours after the clashes began.
Scuffles had first erupted between protesters and retired Army officers in Martyrs’ Square who were angered by chants against President Michel Aoun. Shortly after the incident protesters began to hurl rocks and ran into the street in front of Parliament in an attempt to destroy the barricades.
Security forces responded by firing tear gas to disperse the crowds.
"NEVER SEEN BEIRUT LIKE THIS"
Protest groups began to mobilize earlier Sunday, as two ministers resigned and several others visited Prime Minister Hassan Diab to discuss the probability of the government stepping down in the wake of the monster blast in Beirut port Aug. 4.
“I’ve never seen Beirut like this, not even during the war. I have no words,” Mona Tabbah, 63, said with watery eyes as she walked through Martyrs’ Square Sunday.
“When you are responsible, you have to be aware of everything. Even if you are not responsible directly, you have to tell the people who are to take measures in order to save your people. If you fail to do this, you are not a politician, you are a murderer."
Tuesday’s port blast destroyed huge swaths of the capital and left a crater 43 meters deep, according to a security official cited by AFP Sunday.
The Lebanese Army announced Sunday the death of two of its sergeants from the blast. Sergeants Hamza Iskandar and Hassan Sadiq were both set to be buried Sunday.
Lebanese authorities have refused to take direct responsibility for the blast. The have claimed either that they knew nothing of the stored explosives, that it was beyond their remit to act, or that other officials failed to respond after they sounded the alarm.
Thousands of protesters reeling from the explosion raged at the authorities Saturday for having knowingly stored massive quantities of ammonium nitrate adjacent to densely populated residential neighborhoods for years.
They were met with volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets from the security forces after rioters threw rocks at them and tried to pull down heavy concrete barriers surrounding Parliament.
The Lebanese Army announced Sunday that 105 of its soldiers were injured, with two suffering "extensive injuries" from Saturday's violence.
The Internal Security Forces meanwhile said that 70 of its members had been injured during the chaos. Policeman Toufic Douweihy also died after falling down a lift shaft in the Le Gray hotel while he was chased by protesters, the ISF said.
The ISF said that it arrested 20 people during the protests. They were all transported to Helou Barracks, and forced to undergo drug tests. The ISF announced that 13 of them had narcotics in their system.
The Committe of Lawyers for the Defense of Protesters documented their arrest and condemned the imposition of drug testing on detainees as an attempt to "question the legitimacy of the people's anger.”
It also said that it documented "numerous" injuries among protesters from the use of live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas.
Faced with growing popular anger against Diab's government, Information Minister Manal Abdel-Samad and Environment Minister Demianos Kattar resigned Sunday. Abdel-Samad cited her respect for those who were killed in the blast and frustration at the lack of change in her resignation statement.
They became the second and third ministers to step down from Diab's government within a week. Nassif Hitti resigned Monday as foreign minister, also condemning the government’s inertia toward reform.
Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai Sunday called on Diab's Cabinet to step down over the blast, which he said could be "described as a crime against humanity."
Local media reported that more Cabinet resignations were expected in the coming days. Seven ministers from Diab's 20-member Cabinet need to step down for the government to fall.
The mounting pressures on Diab's government came as French President Emmanuel Macron chaired a UN-backed conference online to drum up support for Lebanon’s blast-devastated population. Donors pledged nearly $300 million in short-term aid.
The money pledged will be earmarked for rebuilding Beirut, suppling food aid, rebuilding schools and hospitals, and delivering medical equipment.
"It is up to the authorities of the country to act so that the country does not sink, and to respond to the aspirations that the Lebanese people are expressing right now, legitimately, in the streets of Beirut," Macron said at the conference.
The ruling elite’s apparent aversion to cleaning up the public sector, reforming the economy and restructuring the banking has pushed most international donors to sideline the authorities when pledging aid. Macron vowed during his visit to Beirut Thursday to direct the money to nongovernmental organizations so that it reaches the Lebanese directly.
In an attempt to placate Lebanon’s seething population, Diab said Saturday that he would propose holding early parliamentary elections.
Early elections were initially a key demand of the Oct. 2019 anti-government uprising, but many protesters lately stepped back from this call, saying that broader reform of the electroal system should first take place.
On the street, Diab's proposal fell mostly on deaf ears.
“I don’t believe in all that political manuvering,” said a 63-year-old man who gave his name as Issam. “No other country is like this. There’s no electricity, water or food. Just theft and sectarian calculations."
Tabbah was less dismissive, telling The Daily Star that she would welcome early parliamentary elections so long as it led to the replacement of the entire political class.
“We have young, educated people who are eager to make a big difference. They have to take over. This old regime is spent. It is not creative, and that’s what we need now to rebuild and revive this country," she said.