Lebanese government resigns as explosion fallout continues
Resignations come as death toll from Aug. 4 blast rises to 163
Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab on Monday announced the resignation of his government nearly a week after a devastating explosion in Beirut that stirred public outrage and spurred a string of ministers to step down.
Diab announced the resignation of the entire cabinet in a televised evening address to the nation, characterizing the detonation of highly explosive material warehoused at the capital's port for the past seven years as being "the result of endemic corruption."
"Today, we follow the will of the people in their demand to hold accountable those responsible for the disaster that has been in hiding for seven years, and their desire for real change," he said. "In the face of this reality … I am announcing today the resignation of this government."
Diab said he backed calls by ordinary Lebanese that those responsible for "this crime" be put on trial.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun accepted the resignation of the prime minister's government and asked it to stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new cabinet is formed, a televised announcement said.
The system of government requires Aoun to consult with parliamentary blocs on who should be the next prime minister, and he is obliged to designate the candidate with the greatest level of support among parliamentarians.
The deadly Aug. 4 port warehouse detonation of more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate has killed 163 people, injured more than 6,000 and destroyed a swathe of the Mediterranean city, compounding months of political and economic turmoil.
The cabinet, formed in January with the backing of the powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah group and its allies, met on Monday, with many ministers saying they wanted to resign, according to ministerial and political sources.
Ahead of Diab's announcement, demonstrations broke out for a third day in central Beirut, with some protesters hurling rocks at security forces guarding an entrance leading to the parliament building, who responded with tear gas.
Investigation needs transparency: UN chief
The information and environment ministers had quit on Sunday, as well as several lawmakers. Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm resigned Monday before the meeting.
"The entire regime needs to change. It will make no difference if there is a new government," Joe Haddad, an engineer, told Reuters. "We need quick elections."
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres told a virtual briefing of UN member states on Monday before the resignations that it was important that a "credible and transparent investigation determine the cause of the explosion and bring about the accountability demanded by the Lebanese people."
"It is also important that reforms be implemented so as to address the needs of the Lebanese people for the longer term," he told the briefing on the humanitarian situation in Lebanon.
The Canadian government announced Monday it is providing an additional $25 million in aid, for a total of $30 million. The government is also matching donations from Canadians through the Lebanon Matching Fund, up to a new expanded maximum of $5 million.
The Lebanese army said on Monday that another five bodies were pulled from the rubble as search and rescue operations continued.
Before the resignations, the cabinet decided to refer the investigation of the blast to the judicial council, the highest legal authority whose rulings cannot be appealed, a ministerial source and state news agency NNA said. The council usually handles top security cases.
For many ordinary Lebanese, the explosion was the last straw in a protracted crisis over the collapse of the economy, endemic corruption, waste and dysfunctional governance, and they have taken to the streets demanding root-and-branch change.
Anti-government protests in the last two days have been the biggest since October, when demonstrators took to the streets over an economic crisis rooted in endemic corruption, waste and mismanagement. Protesters accused the political elite of exploiting state resources for their own benefit.
'It's a Mafia'
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 the economic disaster have ruined everything."
WATCH l Resignations begin in Lebanon as donors make pledges:
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.
Aoun had previously said that the deadly blast was the result of explosive material that had been stored unsafely for years at the port. Diab later said the investigation would consider whether the cause was external interference as well as negligence or an accident.
An emergency international donor conference on Sunday raised pledges worth nearly 253 million euros ($398 million Cdn) for immediate humanitarian relief.
But foreign countries are demanding transparency over how the aid is used, wary of writing blank checks to a government perceived by its own people as deeply corrupt. Some are concerned about the influence of the Shia movement Hezbollah, which is designated as a terrorist group by the United States.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi told a televised news conference on Monday that countries should refrain from politicizing the Beirut port blast. He called on the U.S. to lift sanctions against Lebanon.
The Lebanese, meanwhile, are struggling to come to terms with the scale of losses. Entire neighbourhoods were destroyed.
"It is very sad. We are burying people every day," said a priest.
With files from CBC News