Angry protesters have stormed government buildings in Beirut as tens of thousands of people rallied against Lebanon’s ruling class amid growing anger about a deadly explosion at the capital’s port.
Clashes erupted with Internal Security Forces (ISF) almost immediately after protesters, on Saturday, attempted to reach Lebanon’s parliament building, a site they have repeatedly targeted throughout an anti-establishment protest movement that began in October last year.
Thousands participated in riots, settling fires in buildings already destroyed by Tuesday’s explosion and repeatedly charging police, who fought back with a thick fog of tear gas and rubber bullets, as well as a sporadic use of live ammunition fired into the air.
“They’ve taken everything from me – my money, my youth and now they killed my people,” 26-year-old protester Sandra Khoury told Al Jazeera, holding a stick in one hand and a piece of onion – which protesters sniff to alleviate the effects of tear gas – in the other.
In a sign of solidarity with the protesters, Beirut’s fire brigade – which lost at least 10 members in the first response to the explosion – refused to leave their bases to douse protesters with water. Beirut Governor Marwan Aboud formalised the matter by putting out an order saying they should only respond to fires.
One officer died during the clashes, according to the ISF, which said he was attacked by protesters and fell from a hotel in central Beirut. The Lebanese Red Cross, meanwhile, said they took 63 people to hospitals and treated some 175 on the scene.
Later on Saturday, the army and protesters clashed by Beirut’s main ring road near the city centre. Soldiers, empowered by a state of emergency that has been declared in the capital, used sticks to beat civilians, a small number of whom responded by throwing rocks.
“Take off the suit and come stand with us, then you can wear it again with honour,” a protester said as a number of them confronted a line of soldiers.
“Tell us what you get from being with them?” a demonstrator shouted in a hoarse voice. “We really don’t understand it, why are you doing this to us?”
Earlier, demonstrators in Martyrs’ Square erected gallows and hung up cardboard cutouts of Lebanon’s political class, which they blame for the enormous explosion that ripped through Beirut on Tuesday, killing more than 150 people, wounding 6,000 and leaving some 250,000 people without homes.
As they symbolically fitted nooses around the frames of leaders, a rumbling cheer went up from the crowd, a large number of whom wore bandages from wounds sustained in the explosion.
“They’ve drowned us in poverty and debt, and we were silent. Our currency is worth nothing, and we did nothing,” Farah, an 18-year-old student, told Al Jazeera. “But for them to kill us with a blast in Beirut, we’re definitely going to do something.”
In unison, the protesters chanted curse-filled slogans against President Michel Aoun and Hezbollah, among others.