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Beirut explosion: Security forces fire tear gas at angry demonstrators

Officers deployed in Lebanon's capital as anti-government protesters demonstrate near parliament
The scuffles in central Beirut took place in a ravaged street leading to the parliament (Reuters)

Lebanese security forces late on Thursday fired tear gas to disperse dozens of anti-government demonstrators angered by a cataclysmic blast widely seen as the most shocking expression yet of their government's incompetence.

The scuffles in central Beirut took place in a ravaged street leading to the parliament, the wreckage from Tuesday's explosion still littering the entire area.

Protesters had sparked a blaze, vandalised stores and lobbed stones at security forces, according to the state-run National News Agency (NNA).

Beirut explosion: Firefighters among the first killed
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Police responded with tear gas to disperse the small, but clearly furious crowd, wounding some demonstrators, NNA said. 

Tuesday's blast killed more than 150 people, wounded at least 5,000 and destroyed entire districts of the capital.

Lebanese authorities said it was triggered by a fire igniting 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate negligently stored in a warehouse at Beirut's port since 2013. 

The incident has raised questions as to how such a huge cargo of the highly explosive substance could have been left unsecured for so long. 

The explosion came as Lebanon was already knee-deep in its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

The blast has added to the grievances of a protest movement that emerged in October to demand the removal of a political class deemed inept and corrupt.

Ammonium nitrate: What is it and how did it get to Beirut's port?

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There are still many details surrounding the cause of the explosion that devastated much of Beirut on Tuesday that remain murky and unexplained.

However, the Lebanese government has so far indicated that they believe the enormous blast to have been the result of 2,700 tonnes of the chemical compound ammonium nitrate left lying in a warehouse in Beirut port since 2013.

Middle East Eye has compiled a quick guide to the destructive compound and the circumstances surrounding its fateful detonation on Tuesday.

What is ammonium nitrate?

Ammonium nitrate is an industrial chemical commonly used for fertilisers, but also as an explosive, often used in mining.

The chemical, known by the formula NH4NO3, is a naturally white crystalline solid and is often known as saltpetre.

Under most conditions ammonium nitrate is not necessarily dangerous and is relatively stable - it can even be used to smother a fire.

However, if contaminated it can become highly volatile.

What previous incidents have there been?

The most notorious confirmed ammonium nitrate explosion prior to Tuesday was the 1947 Texas City Disaster.

On 16 April 1947, at the Port of Texas City, 2,300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded, killing almost 500 people.

More than 5,000 people were injured and at least 1,000 buildings levelled in the surrounding area.

It was the deadliest industrial accident in US history and resulted in the first-class action lawsuit against the US government on behalf of 8,485 victims.

A more recent incident involving ammonium nitrate took place in 2015 when a series of explosions at a chemical plant in the Chinese port city of Tianjin killed 173 people and injured 798.

Among the blasts at the port was the detonation of 800 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.

Eventually Chinese courts handed jail sentences to 49 government officials and warehouse executives and staff over their involvement in circumventing and loosening safety standards enabling the storage of dangerous chemicals.

How did the chemical end up in the port?

The chemicals originally arrived at Beirut's port on board a Russian-owned cargo vessel flying a Moldovan flag in September 2013.

The shipping monitoring organisation ShipArrested.com at the time reported that "upon inspection of the vessel by Port State Control, the vessel was forbidden from sailing. Most crew except the master and four crew members were repatriated and shortly afterwards the vessel was abandoned by her owners after charterers and cargo concern lost interest in the cargo".

According to documents posted online and seen by Al Jazeera, the ship's dangerous cargo was then offloaded and placed in hangar 12.

Numerous letters were reportedly sent by customs officials, including former director of Lebanese customs Shafik Merhi, to judges between 2014 and 2017 asking for guidance on what to do with the chemicals.

One letter sent in 2016 - which noted there had been "no reply" to previous requests - said the ammonium nitrate was being kept in "unsuitable" conditions.

"In view of the serious danger of keeping these goods in the hangar in unsuitable climatic conditions, we reaffirm our request to please request the marine agency to re-export these goods immediately to preserve the safety of the port and those working in it, or to look into agreeing to sell this amount," said the letter.

Another letter was sent by Lebanese customs administration director general Badri Daher on 27 October 2017 urging a resolution to the situation, in light of "the danger ... of leaving these goods in the place they are, and to those working there".

Activists have called for a large anti-government demonstration on Saturday - an event they have titled "hang them by the gallows". 

Thursday's demonstration erupted as Lebanon's ambassador to Jordan resigned, saying 'total negligence' by the country's authorities signalled the need for a leadership change.

It is the second such resignation over Tuesday's blast, after lawmaker Marwan Hamadeh stepped down on Wednesday, AFP reported.