Beirut explosion: Angry protesters storm government ministries

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Media caption,

Some protesters have been throwing stones at police who responded with tear gas

Protesters in Beirut have stormed government ministries during a fresh demonstration over Tuesday's huge explosion that left at least 158 dead.

Several thousand people took to the streets protesting. Police have fired tear gas at stone-throwing demonstrators.

Sounds of gunfire have also been heard from central Martyrs' Square.

In a televised address, Lebanese PM Hassan Diab said he would ask for early elections as a way out of the crisis.

"We can't exit the country's structural crisis without holding early parliamentary elections," he said. The issue will be discussed in cabinet on Monday.

Many Lebanese are furious at the failure to prevent the explosion at a warehouse storing over 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.

The material had been seized from a ship six years ago but never moved. The government has promised to find those responsible.

The blast at the port devastated parts of the city and has deepened distrust of what many had already seen as an inept and corrupt political class.

An anti-government protest movement erupted last October, fuelled by an economic crisis and a collapsing currency.

What is happening at the ministries?

Dozens of protesters stormed government ministries and the headquarters of the country's banking association.

The raids started after a group of people chanting anti-government slogans and burning a portrait of President Michel Aoun entered the foreign ministry and called for all ministries to be occupied.

"We have it. It's all ours. The police is outside the gate. They could not stop us," one of the protesters, who identified herself as Rebecca, told the BBC's Newshour.

The protesters at the foreign ministry - at least 100 - included retired army officers. Entry to the building was said to be easy as it had been damaged by Tuesday's explosion.

Media reports said the army drove the original group of protesters out of the foreign ministry several hours later, but other buildings remained occupied.

TV footage showed protesters breaking into the energy and economy ministries.

Soldiers were also seen patrolling the streets in vehicles mounted with machine guns.

What else has been happening?

Crowds estimated at between 5,000 and 10,000 gathered for the protest on Saturday, including a march from one of the most devastated areas near the port to Martyrs' Square.

Skirmishes with the police began early on. Some protesters hurled rocks and sticks, and the police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. There were flashpoints at barricades designed to prevent demonstrators reaching parliament.

Police confirmed to Reuters news agency that live ammunition had been fired in central Beirut, though it is not clear who fired.

A police officer is confirmed to have died during the protests. He fell into the lift-shaft of a hotel, reportedly after being chased there by protesters.

The local Red Cross said it treated 117 injured people at the scene. Another 55 were taken to hospital.

As the protests got under way, mock gallows were erected in Martyrs' Square to hammer home the demonstrators' view of the country's political leaders

Apart from showing the city's anger, the march was also meant to remember victims of the explosion, which injured 6,000, according to the latest update. Around 300,000 people are homeless.

Image caption,
Dozens of protesters entered the foreign ministry in Beirut

UN agencies have warned of a humanitarian crisis in Lebanon, including possible food shortages and an inability to continue to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

On Sunday world leaders are scheduled to take part in a virtual donor conference organised by French President Emmanuel Macron.

Many countries have already offered aid, including the UK, whose PM Boris Johnson spoke President Aoun on Saturday and conveyed the UK's "deepest sympathies to the Lebanese people", Downing Street said.

More on the explosion in Beirut

Media caption,

"Now I'm shaking, all the way from up to down"

Lebanon's president and prime minister have said the ammonium nitrate - which is commonly employed as a fertiliser but can also be used to create an explosive - had been stored in a warehouse at the port without any safety precautions since 2014.

The decision to keep so much explosive material in a warehouse near the city centre has been met with disbelief by many Lebanese.

Mr Aoun has promised a transparent investigation but dismissed demands for an international inquiry.

Twenty-one people have been arrested - among them Badri Daher, the director-general of Lebanon's Customs Authority.