From silence to violence: Beirut blast anniversary ends in tear gas

Clashes began soon after thousands of people had held a moment of silence

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The Lebanese army fired teargas to disperse protesters approaching parliament in Beirut on Wednesday, as violence erupted after thousands of people gathered for a moment of silence to mark the anniversary of last year's explosion.

Some of the protesters attempted to storm one of the entrances to the building, while some masked men were seen breaking up rocks and parts of the pavement to throw at the army. Residents heard gunfire. Footage of people dispersing was widely shared on social media.

The army used tear gas even on peaceful protesters, Tarek Tabbara, a businessman out on the streets, told The National. Mr Tabbara said he and those around him were not expecting tear gas as they had come out in memory of those who died.

"We are protesting today for all the people who died on August 4," he said. "We are disgusted by what's happening. Everything has to change."

The Lebanese Red Cross deployed 21 ambulances and 100 volunteers to downtown Beirut as violence escalated near parliament. Protesters said the police used rubber bullets and watercanons to disperse angry crowds. Demonstrators lit dumpsters on fire to block the road to Parliament. The Internal Security Forces have denied using rubber bullets against demonstrators.

In a different part of the city, a protest group said supporters of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian party, clashed with demonstrators in the Gemmayzeh neighbourhood, which was heavily damaged in the blast.

The Lebanese Red Cross said it transported six people to the hospital and treated 15 others at the scene. The army told The National the situation was under control.

A year after the blast, the details of what triggered the explosion and who owned and enabled the storage of the fertiliser at one of the busiest ports in the Middle East remain unknown.

Earlier, sirens of Beirut’s ambulances and fire engines had rung out in tribute at 6.07pm local time, the moment of the blast that devastated the Lebanese capital, killing at least 214 people and injuring thousands more.

People had gathered around the port’s perimeter, waving flags. After the moment of silence, hundreds of protesters moved towards parliament.

Paul and Tracey Naggar, who lost their three-year-old child in the blast, spoke to the crowd by the port.

"Those who have been given immunity have betrayed us," Mr Naggar said. "We know how to deal with traitors.”

Ibrahim Hoteit, who represents the families of the victims, also gave a speech to protesters near the port.

“We’re carrying a huge pain," he said. "Our bet is on you to stand by us so we can get what we want. But I have one demand, I beg you, no one politicises our cause, so you don’t slaughter us."

"We’re giving justice one last chance, if justice is not served, we have a hundred ways. I promise you, my brother’s blood, and that of the martyrs’ will not go in vain. Even if I have to take revenge myself.”

Some protesters had already begun clashing with Kataeb supporters as they approached Beirut port.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis urged the international community to help a struggling Lebanon.

"Today I appeal to the international community to help Lebanon along the path to resurrection through concrete gestures, not just words," he said at a Vatican event.

The anniversary took place amid increasing calls for justice by the families of victims and as political bickering stalls the investigation into the explosion of hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate.

On Monday, the families of those killed in the blast gave Lebanese authorities 30 hours to lift immunity from officials who have been summoned for questioning, or face a major – but unspecified – escalation.

The families of victims have organised a march called “Let the August 4 regime in all its components and leadership fall”.

The Lebanese army said it arrested in different parts of the country a number of armed men who were headed to the demonstrations in Beirut.

The army's official Twitter account shared an image of the seized weapons.

The stalled investigation into the blast has left families of victims frustrated as Parliament continues to deny the lead investigator authorisation to question senior political and security officials in the case.

The blast destroyed thousands of properties across the capital, causing billions of dollars in damage that compounded Lebanon’s worst economic and financial crisis in decades.

The international community pledged $370 million in humanitarian aid for the crisis-hit nation at a donor conference on Wednesday.

US President Joe Biden announced $100 million in aid. French President Emmanuel Macron pledged $120 million and called on Lebanese leaders to enact reforms.

The explosion toppled the government of Hassan Diab and has since left crisis-hit Lebanon without a functioning Cabinet.

Updated: August 05, 2021, 10:19 AM