Families of Lebanese blast victims protest interior minister

BEIRUT (AP) — Riot police fired tear gas and scuffled with protesters — mostly family members of victims of the Beirut Port blast — outside the home of Lebanon’s caretaker interior minister Tuesday. The demonstrators demanded an end to what they call the obstruction of an investigation into one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.

Hundreds of protesters marched outside the home of Mohamed Fehmi in a symbolic funeral procession with empty coffins to symbolize the victims. They then tossed the coffins into the yard of the building and pushed their way through security guards to hold a symbolic burial ceremony.

The Aug. 4 explosion at the port devastated the capital, killed more than 200 people and injured thousands. Hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material used in fertilizers that had been improperly stored in the port for years ignited, causing the explosion. Many blame officials for keeping the explosive material stored at the port.

“He killed us another time,” said Tracy Naggear, whose 3-year-old daughter was one of the youngest victims of the blast. She was referring to Fehmi’s decision to reject a request by the judge investigating the explosion to question one of Lebanon’s most senior generals, the head of General Security Maj, Gen. Abbas Ibrahim.

Investigating Judge Tarek Bitar said earlier this month he intends to pursue senior politicians and former and current security chiefs in the case, and requested their immunity be lifted so he can prosecute them.

Families of the victims and survivors praised the judge’s move as a bold step. His predecessor leading the probe was removed after he accused two former ministers of negligence that led to the explosion.

Naggear said the symbolic burial outside Fehmi’s building was held at the scene of the “second crime” against the families seeking justice.

The gathering turned rowdy when dozens of protesters stormed Fehmi’s building, breaking down two metal gates, and scuffled with riot police who beat them with clubs. Police fired tear gas to push back against the protesters. The push set off pitched street battles with stone-throwing protesters. Many were injured and treated on the scene.

The protesters sprayed the word “killer” in red at the entrance of Fehmi’s building as men pelted the building with tomatoes.

“Mohamed Fehmi, we will not leave you alone. Lift the immunity,” said Ibrahim Hoteit, whose brother Tharwat, was killed in the blast.

Lebanon is also experiencing one of the worst economic crises in the last 150 years, according to the World Bank. Despite the economic meltdown, politicians have been unable to form a government to lead negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a recovery package.

In a visit to Beirut port Tuesday, a French Cabinet minister criticized Lebanese leaders, warning them of upcoming sanctions from Paris that will target those believed to be blocking the formation of a new government.

France’s Foreign Trade Minister Franck Riester said members of Lebanon’s political elite failed to respect their declared commitment to reforms and warned of a first wave of sanctions by France, Lebanon’s colonial ruler. He did not say whether the measures will be imposed only by France or perhaps by the European Union as well.

“France respects its promises, unlike Lebanese authorities that did not implement reforms,” Riester told reporters, standing amid the ruins in the port. “Things cannot continue this way.”

French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut twice since the port blast, pressing Lebanese politicians to implement reforms in order to release international investments and loans worth billions of dollars.

Repeated promises of reforms by Lebanon’s political elite, which has run the country since the end of the 15-year civil war in 1990, never materialized. The ruling class, including some former warlords, has been blamed for decades of corruption and mismanagement that have brought Lebanon to near-bankruptcy.

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government resigned days after the Beirut Port blast.

After meeting with President Michel Aoun, Riester tweeted that a year after pledging to form a government “nothing was done.”

“This blockage is suicidal,” he said.

Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed from Beirut.

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