Lebanon's cabinet under pressure as ministers quit and anger grows over Beirut blast

by Reuters
Monday, 10 August 2020 14:17 GMT

* Finance minister enters cabinet meeting set to quit -media

* Information, environment, justice ministers have resigned

* Cabinet convenes with many more wanting to go -sources

* Port blast killed 158, left swathes of Beirut in ruins

* Intensifies discontent over endemic graft, mismanagement

* (Adds more bodies found, blast referred to highest judicial body)

By Michael Georgy

BEIRUT, Aug 10 (Reuters) - Lebanon's cabinet faced rising pressure on Monday to step down after a devastating explosion that has stirred public outrage and prompted resignations of several ministers, with the justice minister the latest to go and the finance minister set to quit.

The Aug. 4 port warehouse detonation of more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate killed at least 163 people, injured over 6,000 and destroyed swathes of the bustling Mediterranean capital, compounding months of political and economic meltdown.

The cabinet, formed in January with the backing of the powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah group and its allies, met on Monday, with many ministers wanting to resign, according to ministerial and political sources.

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

Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni, a key negotiator with the IMF over a rescue plan to help Lebanon exit a financial crisis, prepared his resignation letter and brought it with him to a cabinet meeting, a source close to him and local media said.

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.

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

Prime Minister Hassan Diab said on Saturday he would request early parliamentary elections.

Lebanon's president had previously said explosive material was stored unsafely for years at the port. He later said the investigation would consider whether the cause was external interference as well as negligence or an accident.

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

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

FED UP WITH CORRUPTION, MISMANAGEMENT

Anti-government protests in the past 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 siphoning off state resources for their own benefit.

Officials have estimated losses of around $15 billion from the explosion. That is a bill Lebanon cannot pay after already defaulting on sovereign debt exceeding 150% of economic output, and with talks stalled on a lifeline from the International Monetary Fund.

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."

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 politicising 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 neighbourhoods were wrecked.

"It is very sad. We are burying people every day. Forty percent of my church have lost their businesses," said a priest. (Additional reporting by Beirut bureau Writing by Ghaida Ghantous Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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