Lebanese PM and his cabinet RESIGN over explosion that killed 160

Pressure mounts on Hezbollah-backed President as government collapses and country teeters on the brink amid furious protests over disaster

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Lebanon's prime minister and his cabinet resigned tonight in the wake of the devastating Beirut explosion which has killed more than 160 people. 

Hassan Diab told the nation in a televised address: 'Today we are heeding the people and their demands to hold accountable those responsible for a disaster.'

The Prime Minister blamed a 'corrupt' political class that has ruled Lebanon for more than 30 years for the August 4 explosion. 'This is why today I announce the resignation of the government,' Diab said. 

Several ministers had earlier quit the cabinet amid fury over the blast and the Hezbollah-backed President Michel Aoun - who has rejected calls for an international probe into the disaster - is also facing calls to quit. 

The resignations do not force Aoun to step down bu they will cause a legislative paralysis in Lebanon's French-inspired system. 

Last Tuesday's disaster - caused by more than 2,000 tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate which were piled up in a warehouse - killed at least 163 people and destroyed swathes of the Mediterranean capital, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.  

Many in Lebanon see the blast as a symbol of corruption and incompetence among the country's elite, and protests have broken out with tear gas fired on protesters after months of political and economic meltdown.

Much of the fury is directed at the political elite which is backed by Hezbollah, in turn backed by Iran which has called for outside countries to refrain from 'politicising' the disaster. 

Diab's cabinet, which was formed in January with the backing of the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah, met on Monday with many ministers wanting to resign. 

During the session, 'most of the ministers called on the government to step down,' Sport and Youth Minister Vartine Ohanian said. Another minister said Diab 'is heading towards resignation'. 

Health minister Hasan added that Diab would head to the presidential palace to 'hand over the resignation in the name of all the ministers'. 

The information and environment ministers quit on Sunday as well as several lawmakers, and the justice minister followed them out on Monday.

Finance minister Ghazi Wazni, a key negotiator with the IMF over a rescue plan, is believed to have gone to the cabinet meeting with a resignation letter. 

Lebanon is already seeking $20billion in funding from the IMF and now faces billions more in disaster costs, with losses from the explosion estimated to be between $10billion and $15billion.

At least nine lawmakers have also announced they would quit in protest, as have two senior members of the Beirut local government. 

Lebanon's system is modelled on that of former colonial power France, where the president appoints the prime minister and is not required to resign along with the cabinet. 

However, Aoun is also under pressure to quit and his portrait was burned by demonstrators who burst into the foreign ministry building during angry protests at the weekend.  

The country's sectarian power-sharing system requires the president to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister to be a Sunni and the parliament speaker to be a Shi'ite. 

Prime minister Diab, 61, had said on Saturday that he would request early parliamentary elections. 

'The entire regime needs to change. It will make no difference if there is a new government,' said Joe Haddad, a Beirut engineer. 'We need quick elections.'

Last Tuesday's blast is thought to have been caused by a stockpile of ammonium nitrate which had been left unsecured at the port since 2013. 

Six days after the enormous chemical blast which 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 'ground zero' today, where the search is now for bodies and not survivors.

The Lebanese army said today that another five bodies were pulled from the rubble with the help of Russian and French rescue teams, raising the death toll to 163.

The explosion, which drew comparisons with the Hiroshima atom bomb 75 years ago, has also injured more than 6,000 people and left 300,000 homeless. 

The disaster also sparked widespread panic over wheat shortages after 15,000 tonnes of grains were blasted out of the silos.  

The cabinet decided to refer the investigation of the blast to the judicial council, the highest legal authority whose rulings cannot be appealed. 

Lebanon's president had previously said explosive material was stored unsafely for years at the port. 

He said an investigation would consider whether the cause was external interference as well as negligence or an accident. 

'There are two possible scenarios for what happened: it was either negligence or foreign interference through a missile or bomb,' he said last Friday. 

The shipment of ammonium nitrate was officially destined for Mozambique when it sailed on the cargo ship Rhosus in 2013, but the vessel made an unscheduled stop in Beirut where the chemicals were impounded.   

The captain of the Rhosus claims he was told to stop in Beirut to pick up extra cargo - while Mozambique has denied all knowledge of the shipment. 

Cypriot police said on Thursday that they had questioned Russian businessman Igor Grechushkin over his alleged links the ship and its cargo.

Beirut's governor said many foreign workers and truck drivers remained missing and were assumed to be among the casualties. 

Anti-government protests in the past two days have been the biggest since October, when demonstrators took to the streets over the country's economic crisis. 

The personal bodyguard of top official Nabih Berry was pictured firing live rounds at protesters over the weekend as fury over the Beirut explosion threatens to spark a revolution. 

Sporting jeans and a black top, the Hezbollah-linked bodyguard pointed a shotgun at swarms of demonstrators yesterday afternoon and fired in their direction as huge protests rocked the Lebanese capital. 

Protesters accused the political elite of siphoning off state resources after last week mobbing French president Emmanuel Macron with demands for reform. 

'If reforms are not carried out, Lebanon will continue to sink,' Macron said after being met at the airport by President Aoun last week. 

France has always maintained close ties with Lebanon, which was administered by France under a League of Nations mandate until 1943 when it gained independence.  

Officials have estimated losses of around $15billion from the explosion, a bill which Lebanon cannot afford after already defaulting on sovereign debt.  

Eli Abi Hanna's house and his car repair shop were destroyed in the blast.

'The economy was already a disaster and now I have no way of making money again,' he said. 'It was easier to make money during the civil war. The politicians and economic disaster have ruined everything.'

Some Lebanese doubt change is possible in a country where sectarian politicians have dominated since the 1975-90 conflict.

'It won't work, it's just the same people. It's a mafia,' said Antoinette Baaklini, an employee of an electricity company that was demolished in the blast.

Workers picked up fallen masonry near the building where wall graffiti mocked Lebanon's chronic electricity crisis: 'Everyone else in the world has electricity while we have a donkey.'

'It will always be the same. It is just a political game, nothing will change,' said university student Marilyne Kassis.

An emergency international donor conference on Sunday raised pledges worth nearly 253 million euros ($298 million) for immediate humanitarian relief.

But foreign countries demand transparency over how the aid is used, wary of writing blank cheques to a government perceived by its own people as deeply corrupt. 

Some are concerned about the influence of Shi'ite movement Hezbollah, which is designated as a terrorist group by the United States.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said on Monday that countries should refrain from politicizing the port blast. He called on the United States to lift sanctions against Lebanon.

Lebanese, meanwhile, are struggling to come to terms with the scale of losses. Entire neighborhoods were wrecked.

'It is very sad. We are burying people every day. Forty percent of my church have lost their businesses,' said a priest.

Publish : 2020-08-11 12:37:51

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