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Lebanese MPs meet for first time since blast, debate state of emergency

BEIRUT: Lebanon's parliament convened on Thursday (Aug 13) to approve a two-week state of emergency in Beirut declared by the government following a deadly explosion that has reignited angry street protests.

If endorsed, the state of emergency law will give the military exceptional powers to snuff out renewed protests demanding the overthrow of a political elite widely held responsible for the devastating blast, human rights groups said.

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Calls had circulated on social media networks for protesters to gather near parliament to prevent lawmakers from joining the session.

"We are taking to the streets to stop the criminals from meeting," said one post on social media networks.

"You have destroyed us! Leave!" said another.

The government had already declared a two-week state of emergency on Aug 5, the day after the explosion that killed 171 people and ravaged the heart of the capital.

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But as the measure lasts more than eight days, Lebanese law requires that it be approved by parliament, according to human rights watchdog The Legal Agenda.

The state of emergency allows the army to close down assembly points and prohibit gatherings deemed threats to national security, and expands the jurisdiction of military courts over civilians.

The army can also raid homes at any time and impose house arrest on anyone engaged in activities considered to threaten security, the watchdog said.

This would give authorities legal cover to crack down on a protest movement that first emerged in October last year demanding deep-seated political reform.

Senior US official David Hale is meanwhile expected in Beirut later on Thursday to stress the urgent need for financial and governance reforms, ending endemic corruption and bringing transparency, among other messages, the US Embassy said.

The Aug 4 blast at a warehouse storing highly-explosive material in Beirut port injured some 6,000, left around 300,000 without habitable housing and wrecked swathes of the city, which was already in a deep financial crisis.

Authorities say the blast was caused by more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored for years without safety measures.

READ: Beirut port blast crater 43 metres deep: Security official

A view shows damage to a petrol station in the aftermath of a massive explosion at the port of Beirut, Lebanon, Aug 12, 2020. (REUTERS/Hannah McKay)

Some 30 to 40 people are still missing more than a week after the blast.

Outrage at the explosion has fuelled protests in which hundreds of people have been injured in confrontations between security forces and demonstrators. The government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned earlier this week.

Thursday's parliamentary session started with a minute of silence.

Apart from the state of emergency, the resignation of eight MPs who quit after the blast are also expected to be confirmed during the parliamentary session.

READ: Beirut blast: Lebanon's political game changer or hollow blow?

But Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a pillar of the sectarian elite, also "wants to give a political message – that the parliament exists – despite all this talk about early elections and the resignations of MPs", said the source.

Humanitarian aid has poured in but foreign countries have made clear they will not provide funds to help pull Lebanon from economic collapse without action on long-demanded reforms to tackle systemic graft, waste, mismanagement and negligence.

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