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Violent protests, anger in Beirut over blast

Protests in Beirut over the Lebanese government’s response to the deadly blast on Tuesday, which killed at least 158 people and injured 6,000, turned violent with security forces firing several rounds of tear gas as some demonstrators set fires and threw objects at the police. Special Correspondent Leila Molana-Allen reports on the widespread anger in Lebanon and the rescue mission underway.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In Beirut, protests over the Lebanese government's response to this week's deadly explosion turned violent today.

    Lebanese riot police fired tear gas at protesters in Beirut's city center. Some protesters set fires and threw objects at police.

    There's been widespread anger at government officials over corruption and incompetence at failing to prevent the massive blast on Tuesday, which killed at least 158 people, injured 6,000 and left hundreds of thousands homeless.

    More than two thousand tons of explosive ammonium nitrate had been stored at the port for years. Since the blast at least 19 people have been detained, including the port's chief. Even before the blast, Lebanon was in the midst of its worst economic crisis in decades. Dozens of people are still missing, and at the site of the explosion, rescue workers, some of them from other countries, continue the search for survivors. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Leila Molana-Allen has more.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Let him come back. Dear God, just let him come back.

    At the entrance to the Beirut port, the epicenter of Tuesday's explosion, desperate families sit for hours praying their loved ones will be found. Zainab is waiting for news of her husband who worked here. He hasn't been seen since the blast. Inside a scene of utter devastation. The acrid stench of burning metal, plastic and chemicals hangs heavy in the air, black ash coating every surface. Packing crates spill out charred, misshapen lumps amid the rising dust, barely recognizable as the freshly imported goods once stacked in these warehouses. A washing machine here, what might have been a glass jug there.

    Just a few days ago, this was a thriving port, Beirut's lifeline to the rest of the world, and now piles of rubble, twisted, smoking, metal is all that remains.

    And underneath that rubble, human beings. These disfigured, crumbling ruins were once Lebanon's national grain reserve. Fifteen thousand tons of wheat and 10,000 of corn were destroyed, now forming an unstable mountain of waste through which rescuers must wade. Dozens of countries have sent rescue teams to help in the effort.

    These French rescue workers have been digging nonstop for 35 hours to try and reach seven people they believe are buried underneath at least 30 meters of concrete and earth.

    The conditions are extreme. They're working in full protective gear, in 90 degree heat in air this with toxic fumes and dust. But even more perilous are the structures on the point of collapse that surround them.

  • Lieutenant Andrea:

    The main danger is from both above and from below. From above, the structure behind could collapse with any vibrations, and from below, when you're looking for the foundations, if you hit the wrong spot, you could get collateral damage.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    The risk is so great that the Turkish Red Crescent has set up a field hospital directly behind the search and rescue site. It's not only for retrieved victims, but for the rescue workers in case something goes wrong.

    "So it's set up just like a real emergency room? So you have a ventilator here, you have a monitor, anything you might need for serious injuries?"

    And the risk isn't just at the port area. The explosion destroyed residential neighborhoods for miles around. Here in Gemmazye, one of the worst hit, the search is ongoing for both survivors and whatever can be retrieved from people's homes and businesses.

    But many buildings are now dangerously unstable, risking further collapse and injury. Back at the port, the team are using sniffer dogs to try and find dozens of other missing workers who could be buried along the seashore.

    Meanwhile, families like Zainab's can only wait, wonder and hope.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Leila Molana-Allen joined us earlier today from Beirut for more on the situation in Lebanon. How is Beirut recovering now?

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Beirut is trying to recover. What's happening at the moment is that people are trying to figure out how they're going to live over the next few weeks and then look beyond that. So part of that, obviously, is the reconstruction of homes. So many homes damaged here in the immediate vicinity, completely ravaged and up to nine kilometers away, a lot of damage happening.

    And what we're seeing is this incredible effort of groups of young people, armies really arming themselves with brooms and spades and striding out into the town, walking down the streets, clearing up, turning up at people's houses and walking, saying we want to clean, what can we do? And if there's no one there, they clean up anyway.

    Of course, one of the biggest issues at the moment is still the ongoing injuries in hospitals. Every hospital bed is full. Still 60 people, more than 60 people missing and probably many more than that. That's how many have been reported.

    So lots of families desperately still looking, of course, the whole community is just trying to get through the next weeks before they can think about the months and the year after that.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Leila, most of the world has not been paying attention to what's been happening in Lebanon over the past several months. It's also in a state of economic crisis. So who pays for this cleanup? How does this work get done?

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    So it's estimated at the moment that the damage is 15 billion dollars, which is quite incredible for a country that already was in such dire straits. Right now, the majority of this cleanup on the streets, is being done by the people.

    The only place where the authorities are doing things is down at the port because the army operates the port. And what we've seen is a lot of international aid coming in. So that started a couple of days ago and they're just teams from all across the world doing medical care, doing search and rescue.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So you've got a pre-existing economic crisis, a pandemic and now catastrophe. All these frustrations are starting to boil over into the streets.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    They are the anger has been palpable the last few days. The protesters are going round saying now we do cleanup. But on Saturday that stops and we clean up the government.

    We sweep them out. And for the last few hours, they have all been in downtown Beirut. And immediately, the moment the protest started, tear gas was unleashed. Then rubber bullets started. Dozens injured. And the rage that is on the street, I have not seen this level throughout the entire protest movement here. They've now managed to breach part of the parliament wall, which is where the security forces have been trying to keep them away from.

    There's also obviously a fear of COVID-19. And they've been sent hospitals sending out instructions on how to keep yourself safe in the demonstrations. Almost an implicit endorsement of the fact that everybody is out in the streets and angry, so angry, at this government.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Leila Molana-Allen, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Thanks, Hari.

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