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Lebanon’s prime minister to step down amid large protests following last week’s blast

Protests have erupted in Lebanon following Tuesday’s blast in Beirut’s port area. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

BEIRUT — Lebanon's prime minister resigned Monday amid public fury about official negligence that led to an explosion so massive that it devastated swaths of the capital, but his announcement failed to quiet the anger on the streets.

In a televised address, Prime Minister Hassan Diab said a level of corruption “bigger than the state” precipitated the events that led to the blast, which erupted in a warehouse that contained 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored there for years despite repeated warnings that it was unsafe.

“Only God knows how many catastrophes they are hiding,” he said in an apparent reference to the country’s ruling elite. “That’s why I have announced my resignation today. May Allah protect Lebanon.”

President Michel Aoun said that Diab and his cabinet will stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new government is formed, which could require months of political wrangling.

As Diab announced his resignation, there was little celebration among demonstrators in Beirut’s central Martyrs’ Square. Protesters thronged the downtown streets for a third day as security forces used tear gas to push them back. The Lebanese Red Cross said it had taken seven demonstrators to the hospital and treated 38 at the scene.

The warehouse explosion on Aug. 4 killed at least 160 people, wounded more than 6,000 and left as many as 300,000 homeless. As Beirut has emerged from its shock, it has mostly been the people, and not the authorities, who have swept the rubble and glass from the streets.

Photos show aftermath of the Beirut blasts

Decades of corruption and mismanagement already had left Lebanon in the throes of economic calamity, with the value of the currency shattering and hundreds of thousands of Lebanese sinking below or close to the poverty line in a matter of weeks. The explosion caused widespread damage to Beirut’s port and destroyed the country’s main grain silo at a time when reserves are low and some food prices have tripled in the space of a year.

Diab became prime minister in January, after his predecessor Saad Hariri had resigned following huge street protests demanding an overhaul of the country’s decades-old system of corrupt, sectarian rule. Diab’s appointment was supported by the Iranian-allied Hezbollah group, which pushed for his lineup of ministers.

People with ties to the government said Diab had lost the support of powerful politicians who had originally backed his government. These politicians feared that he was going too far in investigating corruption that had allowed the ammonium nitrate to remain in the port warehouse for six years.

“The system realized that he was going to investigate the port properly,” said an adviser to Diab’s government.

Diab’s announcement that he would lift Lebanon’s stringent banking secrecy laws on 19 port officials, who had been placed under house arrest after the explosion, alarmed politicians who participated in successive governments during those years, the adviser said. “The system freaked out about one particular thing, which was lifting the banking secrecy. It was done unilaterally, through the courts without parliament,” he said. “It was a sign that maybe Diab was not quite under control.”

It could not be independently confirmed whether Diab’s government had been making progress on the investigation.

Apart from any resistance he faced from the country’s ruling elite, Diab had already incurred widespread criticism for his handling of the economic crisis buffeting Lebanon in recent months. Diab had not fulfilled his promises to carry out changes needed to salvage the nation’s economy, said Maha Yahya of the Carnegie Middle East Center.

“This cabinet was already a lame duck long before the explosion happened. Even the people who brought it to power were criticizing it,” she said. “The level of incompetence it was showing in running the most severe crisis Lebanon has ever faced, even before the explosion — it was incapable.”

Aoun has rejected calls for an international investigation of the circumstances surrounding the explosion, saying it would “delay” justice for the dead. But activists said a Lebanese inquiry would allow the corrupt political elite to avoid accountability.

The state-run National News Agency said Monday that Maj. Gen. Tony Saliba, the head of the Lebanese State Security, had been questioned by a judge. It gave no details, but other generals are scheduled to be questioned.

They were family and fought Beirut’s fires together — including their last

Since the weekend, protesters have clashed with security forces and occupied state ministries. They have also hanged nooses in a public square and demanded the death penalty for members of the ruling elite.

“The government has resigned, but it’s not about the government,” a 24-year-old demonstrator said Monday, his eyes streaming from tear gas and bandages on his head and leg from wounds inflicted in the blast last week.

“The government has been here six months, but the problems have been here 30 years,” said the man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear that his employment might be affected. “This political class needs to go.” He said he wants the president and members of parliament to resign and a new electoral law.

Lea Chouefaty, 23, was leaving Martyrs’ Square with two friends as security forces pushed back protesters from roads around parliament with volleys of tear gas. Dozens of soldiers were entering the square from side streets.

“The parliament is still here. The warlords are still here,” she said, complaining of rumored plans that an earlier government, which resigned last year, would now be reinstated.

“The first time this happened, we thought maybe we’d have a change,” said her friend Tarek Aziz, 24, referring to the resignation of the previous government. “But look at these ruins,” he said, gesturing to buildings ripped apart in the explosion.

Sarah Dadouch and Nader Durgham in Beirut, Suzan Haidamous in Washington and Asser Khattab in Paris contributed to this report.

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