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Government Resigns as Lebanon Honors Victims of Devastating Blast

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Beirut on Tuesday marked a week since the catastrophic explosion that killed at least 171 people, injured thousands and plunged Lebanon into a deeper political crisis.

Thousands of people marched near the devastated port, remembering those who died in the most destructive single blast ever to hit the country.

They observed a minute of silence at 6:08 p.m. local time, the moment on Aug. 4 that thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in the city’s port where it had been stored for more than six years, apparently with the knowledge of top political and security officials.

The explosion has fueled outrage against political leaders and led to the resignation of the government on Monday.

Hundreds marched through the streets of the hard-hit neighborhood of Gemayze, carrying portraits of the dead before a candlelight vigil after dusk near the port.

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“He knew,” read a poster bearing President Michel Aoun’s picture.

Aoun, in office since 2016, said Friday he was first told of the dangerous stockpile nearly three weeks ago and immediately ordered military and security agencies to do “what was needed.”

He suggested his responsibility ended there, saying he had no authority over the port.

Aoun pledged “to all Lebanese who are in pain that I will not be silent and will not rest until the facts are revealed.”

Do you believe Lebanon's government is at fault for the explosion?

“I’m very furious, I’m enraged, I’m angry, I’m sad. I’m hopeless,” Anthony Semaan, who came to pay his respects to the victims, said.

He said the government’s resignation makes no difference.

“First of all, there are questions that need to be answered. And second, there are other rats that need to be brought down first, and when they are brought down then maybe we can start thinking about the future,” he added.

It still wasn’t clear what caused the fire in a port warehouse that triggered the explosion of the chemicals, which created a shock wave so powerful it was felt as far away as the island of Cyprus, more than 180 miles across the Mediterranean.

Outgoing Health Minister Hamad Hassan said the blast killed at least 171 people, with between 30 and 40 still missing. Of the injured, 120 remain in intensive care, he said.

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The explosion damaged thousands of apartments and offices in the capital and came amid an unprecedented economic and financial crisis facing the country since late last year.

U.N. food agency head David Beasley said he was “very, very concerned” Lebanon could run out of bread in about two and a half weeks and that the World Food Program was looking at all options to make certain there is no interruption in the food supply.

Meanwhile, efforts to form a new government got underway a day after Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned.

His government, which was supported by the Islamic militant group Hezbollah and its allies, unraveled after the deadly blast, with three ministers announcing they were quitting.

His government was formed after his predecessor, Saad Hariri, stepped down in October in response to anti-government demonstrations over corruption. Leadership factions bickered for months before settling on Diab.

Lebanese have demanded an independent Cabinet not backed by any of the political parties. Many are also calling for an independent investigation into the port explosion, saying they have zero trust in a local probe.

Lebanese officials have rejected an international investigation.

The government, in the last decision it made before resigning, referred the case to the Supreme Judicial Council, Lebanon’s top judicial body, which handles crimes infringing on national security as well as political and state security crimes.

The ammonium nitrate, a chemical used in fertilizers and explosives, originated from a cargo ship called MV Rhosus that had been traveling from the country of Georgia to Mozambique in 2013.

It made an unscheduled detour to Beirut as the Russian shipowner hoped to earn some extra cash in Lebanon. Unable to pay port fees and reportedly leaking, the ship was impounded.

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