Lebanon police, protesters clash on Beirut blast anniversary

Hundreds of Lebanese march to mark anniversary of Beirut port explosion that killed more than 200 people.

People carry national flags as they hold a moment of silence marking the one-year anniversary of Beirut's port blast, near the site of the explosion in Beirut [Emilie Madi/Reuters]

Lebanese police have scuffled with angry protesters demanding accountability for last year’s Beirut port explosion, a short distance from the main event marking the tragedy’s first anniversary.

The scuffles near parliament in central Beirut broke out on Wednesday between riot police and stone-lobbing protesters, who tried to storm the main building. Riot police responded by firing tear gas and water cannon and beating demonstrators with batons.

The Red Cross said it transported six people to hospital, and had treated dozens more on-site.

Nearby, a few hundred of metres (yards) away at the port, thousands gathered to mark the first anniversary of the explosion which killed at least 214 people and injured thousands.

Survivors and relatives of blast victims carried flags and portraits of the dead, as prayers and mournful tunes rang out amid a mix of grief and anger. There were no reports of violence there.

Banks, businesses and government offices were shuttered on Wednesday as Lebanon marked a national day of mourning.

The grim anniversary comes amid an unprecedented economic and financial meltdown, and a political deadlock that has kept the country without a functioning government for a full year.

It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history – the result of hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate igniting after a fire broke out.

The explosion tore through the city with such force that it caused a tremor across the entire country that was heard and felt as far as the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, more than 200km (180 miles) away.

It soon emerged in documents that the highly combustible nitrates were haphazardly stored at a port warehouse alongside other flammable material since 2014, and that multiple high-level officials across the years knew of its presence and did nothing.

‘All we can do is protest’

A year later, there has been no accountability, and the investigation has yet to answer questions such as who ordered the shipment of the chemicals and why officials ignored repeated internal warnings of their danger.

A justice symbol monument is seen in front of towering grain silos that were gutted in the enormous explosion at the port [Hussein Malla/AP]

“This is a day of pain and grief. It is the day we lost our loved ones and relatives and children. We hope all those coming down in solidarity with us respect our pain,” said Ibrahim Hoteit, who lost his brother in the blast and is now a spokesperson for the families fighting for accountability.

Tatiana Hasrouty, whose father was one of the casualties, told Al Jazeera that victims must keep demanding justice.

“We demand that everyone is held accountable for their actions. Until now, we have nothing because they are not lifting immunity so we cannot proceed with the trial,” Hasrouty said.

“I believe politicians, and anyone responsible, fear the people. If we put pressure on them, we can acquire justice … They are scared that if they lift the immunity, they will be held accountable. All we can do is protest, let them fear us more.

“We don’t want them to control us any more. We don’t want any politician who is responsible for this blast to be in the government any more.”

A huge metal gavel with the words “Act for Justice” was placed on a wall opposite the port with its shredded grain silos, near the words “My government did this” scrawled in black.

Flags flew at half-staff over government institutions and embassies, and even medical labs and COVID-19 vaccination centres were closed.

Reflecting the raw anger at the country’s governing class, posters assailing authorities were hung on the facades of defaced buildings across from the port.

“Here starts your end and our beginning,” read one poster that took up the space of five floors of a high-rise.

“Hostages of a murderous state,” read another.

Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from Beirut, said for families of the victims seeking justice, “they’re up against a political and security establishment clinging onto power”.

“They’re doing their best to evade justice,” Khodr said, adding that judge Tarek Bitar, investigating the blast, is requesting that immunities are lifted, but “he can only do so much”.

Politicians and officials, including the president, have said they will lift immunities, “but for many Lebanese, this is just talk”, Khodr said.

“If they really wanted to lift immunities, they can hold a session of parliament and lift the immunities for these officials to be questioned. Many don’t feel that they can do much.

“This is a country with a culture of impunity… Political assassinations, bombings [have occurred], there’s never been an investigation, there has never been arrests and there have never been trials,” Khodr said.

“For people here, the only way they will know the truth is if there is an international investigation, but so far politicians are resisting this.”

The blast, coupled with the devastating economic crisis, political deadlock and rising poverty, have posed the gravest threat to the small country’s stability since its 1975-90 civil war.

In a statement on Wednesday afternoon, the Lebanese army said it arrested a number of people who were on their way to take part in anniversary commemorations, saying they had a large number of weapons and ammunition in their possession.

Call for international probe

In an extensive investigative report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Tuesday called for an international probe into the blast, accusing Lebanese authorities of trying to thwart the investigation.

HRW said a lack of judicial independence, constitution-imposed immunity for high-level officials and a range of procedural and systemic flaws in the domestic investigation rendered it “incapable of credibly delivering justice”.

Meanwhile, about 40 heads of states and government, diplomats, and heads of international organisations were taking part in a conference co-hosted by France and the United Nations on Wednesday, hoping to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to meet Lebanon’s growing humanitarian needs.

French President Emmanuel Macron said the virtual event is meant to show support for the Lebanese people – not authorities – and pledged France would provide 100 million euros ($118.6m) in the coming months.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies