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Lebanese Criticize Government Over Massive Explosion In Beirut

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The streets of Beirut, Lebanon, are still full of rubble. Teams keep looking for survivors from Tuesday's blast that killed more than 130 people and wounded more than 5,000. Buildings were damaged across the city. For all Lebanon's past of civil war, conflict with Israel and militant bombings, this biggest blast of all so far seems like an accident. To Lebanese, it is the ultimate example of the neglect by leadership that has driven the country to ruin.

NPR's Ruth Sherlock in the U.K. reports with Nada Homsi in Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Anger is mounting. In the central square of Beirut's mostly destroyed downtown, a group of Lebanese, some carrying shovels to dig through the debris, shout, "The people want the fall of the regime."

Evidence continues to build that the blast was caused by some 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that arrived on a ship in 2013 and was placed in a warehouse at the port with few safety measures.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER HASSAN DIAB: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Lebanon's prime minister, Hassan Diab, said in the hours after the blast that he would punish those responsible for the explosion. Since then, the country's president and other political elites have added to the call. But it seems the very political class asking for this investigation may be the ones to blame.

Badri Daher, the head of the customs department, shrugged off any fault and told local media that the port sent five or six letters to judicial officials asking for permission to remove the ammonium nitrate and warning of its dangers. Separate local media reports suggest these warnings even reached the prime minister's office last year. Even before this disaster, Lebanon was in financial ruin. Political corruption and mismanagement caused a currency collapse, food shortages and long daily power cuts - this after an infamous period when government couldn't even collect rotting garbage from the streets.

In response, a massive anti-government protest began in 2019 and went on until the coronavirus pandemic. Now citizens are forced to sift through the shattered remains of their homes and businesses. And they want the political class, dominated by sectarian factions and former warlords, out.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: This video posted online by Sky News Arabia shows the anger as citizens yell, "resign, resign, resign" and throw water over the justice minister as she visits a neighborhood. Elsewhere in the city, a small crowd chased the visiting French president, Emmanuel Macron, asking him for help in removing their political leaders. Macron stopped to listen and later himself told the press that there is a need for a new political order.

For now, Lebanese like 23-year-old Mohammed al Obeidi know they can't rely on their government for help.

MOHAMMED AL OBEIDI: The Lebanese people must stand with either because we don't have a government, we don't trust our government.

SHERLOCK: He's among the volunteers who have come out to the street by the thousands with food, blankets and more to help those most in need. He says the French president's visit shows more concern for the country than its own leaders have. Another volunteer is student Clara Diba.

CLARA DIBA: And if it wasn't for the government's mismanagement, we wouldn't even be here. So we are finally taking things in our own hands.

SHERLOCK: Many of the volunteers have long taken part in protests against government corruption. This week's tragedy only confirms the need for change.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.