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Lebanon assembly ratifies state of emergency after deadly Beirut blast

The state of emergency formally approved by the parliament allows the army to close down assembly points and prohibit gatherings deemed threats to national security.

Rescuers and civil defence gather at Beirut port’s silo on 5 August 2020 in the aftermath of a massive explosion in the Lebanese capital. Picture: AFP

BEYROUTH - Lebanon's parliament Thursday approved a two-week state of emergency in Beirut declared after last week's gigantic explosion that gives the army greater powers to suppress resurgent protests.

Top diplomats jetted in to show solidarity, contribute to the massive ongoing emergency aid effort but also to weigh in on political developments following a blast widely blamed on state corruption.

A top US envoy announced that the FBI would be joining the probe into the colossal blast that killed 171 people, injured thousands and reignited street protests demanding the ouster of the entire political elite.

Dozens of demonstrators shouted as lawmakers arrived at parliament to ratify the emergency measure, but protesters were outnumbered by security forces and failed to block the MPs' cars.

Lebanese are furious at a political leadership that allowed a large shipment of hazardous ammonium nitrate to languish for years in a port warehouse despite repeated safety warnings.

"You have destroyed us! Leave!" demanded one social media post, calling for more street protests.

An AFP investigation found that until the eve of the blast, officials had exchanged warnings over the cargo, but did nothing despite experts' fears it could cause a major conflagration.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned with his cabinet Monday but still leads a transitional administration.

The state of emergency formally approved by the parliament allows the army to close down assembly points and prohibit gatherings deemed threats to national security.

The move worries Lebanon's 10-month-old protest movement that had faded amid the coronavirus pandemic and deepening economic hardship, but which has returned to the streets with force since the 4 August disaster.

FBI JOINS PROBE

Human Rights Watch said it was "very concerned" the state of emergency would serve "as a pretext to crack down on protests and snuff out the very legitimate grievances of a large segment of the Lebanese population".

A military official said the now formalised state of emergency would place all security forces under the command of the army, which would oversee the "post-explosion phase".

The official, who asked not to be named because he is not authorised to speak on the issue, stressed that it would not lead to "a crackdown" on civil freedoms.

"We support the right to peaceful protest, even during a state of emergency," he said.

The massive explosion has renewed calls from Lebanon's international partners for overdue reforms to the political system and to shore up the deeply indebted economy.

Top US envoy David Hale, who arrived in Beirut Thursday for a three-day visit, announced that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) would join the probe in the blast.

"The FBI will soon join Lebanese and international investigators, at the invitation of the Lebanese, in order to help answer questions that I know everyone has about the circumstances that led up to this explosion," he told reporters during a tour of a damaged area near the port.

Calls had been growing in Lebanon for an international and independent investigation, an option President Michel Aoun has so far ruled out.

French and other foreign investigators had already been working at the blast site but their findings are centralised by the Lebanese state's top security echelon.

POLITICAL DEADLOCK

Hale is due to meet some of the country's top officials on Friday, as is French Defence Florence Parly, who also arrived on Thursday.

Both of them made a point of showing that the aid their countries is offering is being delivered directly to non-government groups on the ground, largely bypassing Lebanon's toxic political echelons.

Aoun and his allies from the Shiite movement Hezbollah have made it clear they saw the international solidarity generated by the port disaster as an opportunity to shake off their quasi-pariah status on the diplomatic scene.

Officials did not appear to be making rapid progress toward naming a new cabinet, a process that could take months.

The president's office had yet to schedule parliamentary consultations to name a new premier.

Parliament speaker Nabih Berri called on authorities "to speed up the process of forming a cabinet" that can spearhead reforms.

The international community is pushing for a cabinet comprised of independents who could win the support of protesters, as well as representatives of top political parties to deter them from obstructing the government's work, a Western diplomatic source told AFP.

But feedback so far from Lebanon's top political players "has not been encouraging" with many of them dismissing pressure from the street "as not very strong," the source said.

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