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Lebanon: Police fire tear gas at protesting relatives of port blast victims

Dozens of protesters gather outside home of interior minister, accusing him of stalling probe into deadly port blast
Demonstrators and families of the Beirut blast victims chant slogans outside the residence of Lebanon's interior minister in western Beirut on 13 July 2021 (AFP)

Lebanese police on Tuesday fired tear gas at the relatives of those killed in the 4 August 2020 port blast in Beirut, as they protested outside the home of the country's interior minister.

Dozens of protesters gathered outside the heavily guarded home of caretaker interior minister Mohammed Fahmi, who is accused of stalling a probe into last summer's huge port explosion, calling for accountability for the blast which killed more than 200 people and wrecked huge swathes of the capital.

The angry crowd, demanding justice as the anniversary approaches of Lebanon's worst peace-time disaster, were pushed back by riot police who swung batons and fired tear gas to disperse them.

AFP correspondents saw a man with a bleeding wound on his head after he was beaten by security forces, and paramedics treating protesters for tear-gas suffocation.

An investigation launched in the wake of the tragedy, which was caused by the detonation of a huge stockpile of fertiliser lying in the port, has yet to hold any officials to account.

Victims' families say political interference has derailed the process.

Earlier this month, Fahmi rejected a request by the judge investigating the blast to question Abbas Ibrahim, head of the General Security bureau, one of the country's top security agencies. 

"By refusing to lift Abbas Ibrahim's legal immunity, the interior minister is standing between us, the relatives of blast victims, and justice," said Paul Najjar, who lost his three-year-old daughter Alexandra to the explosion. 

Fahmi "is killing us a second time," he told AFP outside the minister's home. 

During Tuesday's angry protest, relatives tore off the gates at the entrance to Fahmi's apartment building, as well as displaying portraits of the deceased in a makeshift shrine and piled up white coffins nearby.

"These are the coffins of our children," Najjar said. 

The stand-off, which started in the afternoon, escalated with the arrival of dozens of angry demonstrators after sunset.

Protestors chanted: "The people demand the overthrow of the regime!"

Lebanon's Internal Security Forces reported 20 injuries among its ranks. 

The Lebanese Red Cross said it had sent four ambulances to Fahmi's home, but did not provide a figure for the wounded.

Stalled probe

Last month, rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called for a UN investigation into the explosion, in light of Lebanon's stalled probe.

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Lead judge Tarek Bitar is demanding that parliament lift the immunity of three former ministers so he can proceed with investigations but lawmakers have requested more evidence before deciding on whether to waive immunity. 

Bitar this week rejected parliament's request, a judicial source told AFP.

In February, Bitar's predecessor as lead judge in the probe was removed by a court, which had questioned his impartiality because his home had been damaged in the explosion.

Judge Fadi Sawan had issued charges against caretaker premier Hassan Diab and three former ministers in December for "negligence and causing death to hundreds", triggering outrage from politicians.

Diab resigned in the wake of the explosion but has stayed on as caretaker prime minister as the country's bitterly divided political leaders wrangle over a replacement for his government.