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Lebanese army bulldozers plowed through wreckage to reopen roads around Beirut's demolished port Thursday, a day after the government pledged to investigate this week's devastating explosion and placed port officials under house arrest.
 
The blast Tuesday, which appeared to have been caused by an accidental fire that ignited a stockpile of ammonium nitrate at the port, rippled across the Lebanese capital, killing at least 135 people, injuring more than 5,000 and causing widespread destruction.


 
It also may have accelerated the country's coronavirus outbreak, as thousands flooded into hospitals in the wake of the blast. Salah Zeineldine, a doctor of pulmonary and critical care at the American University of Beirut Medical Center, told CBS News that the country was already weakened by a severe economic crisis as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that up until now hospitals had sufficient supply to treat patients — but added that after the blast, hospitals might start to run short on equipment. 

"We fear that what was functioning yesterday won't function tomorrow," he said. "Last night's tragedy was one of the worse known to mankind, excluding wars."

Pamela Makhoul, a nurse at Saint George Hospital, told CBS News that all patients were evacuated to other hospitals after they received basic care. 

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"The situation is a disaster," she said Wednesday. "There's nothing left."

Hundreds of thousands have been forced to move in with relatives and friends after their homes were damaged, further raising the risks of exposure.

French President Emmanuel Macron arrived Thursday amid pledges of international aid, and tweeted that "Lebanon is not alone." He planned to visit the devastated port and meet with top officials.
 
But Lebanon, which was already mired in a severe economic crisis, faces a daunting challenge in rebuilding. It's unclear how much support the international community will offer the notoriously corrupt and dysfunctional government.
 
Losses from the blast are estimated to be between $10 billion to $15 billion, Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud told the Saudi-owned TV station Al-Hadath on Wednesday, adding that nearly 300,000 people are homeless.
 
The tiny Mediterranean country was already on the brink of collapse, with soaring unemployment and a financial crisis that has wiped out people's life savings. Hospitals were already strained by the coronavirus pandemic, and one was so badly damaged by the blast it had to treat patients in a nearby field.
 
Dr. Firas Abiad, director general of Rafik Hariri University Hospital, the public hospital leading the coronavirus fight, said he expects an increase in cases in the next 10 to 15 days linked to crowding at hospitals and blood donation centers after the blast.
 
Authorities had largely contained the outbreak by imposing a sweeping lockdown in March and April, but case numbers have risen in recent weeks. A renewed lockdown was to go in effect this week but those plans were canceled after the explosion. The country has reported more than 5,400 coronavirus cases and 68 deaths since February.
 
"There is no doubt that our immunity in the country is less than before the explosion and this will affect us medium- to long-term," Abiad said. "We desperately need aid, not only us but all hospitals in Lebanon."
 
Anger is mounting against the political class that has dominated the country since the 1975-1990 civil war, which has long been seen as hopelessly corrupt and incapable of providing even basic services like electricity and trash collection.
 
The investigation into the explosion is focused on how 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical used in fertilizers, came to be stored at the port facility for six years, and why nothing was done about it.
 
The Port of Beirut and customs office are notorious for being among the most corrupt and lucrative institutions in Lebanon, where various factions and politicians, including the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group, hold sway.
 
Fueling speculation that negligence was to blame for the accident, an official letter circulating online showed the head of the customs department had warned repeatedly over the years that the stockpile of ammonium nitrate was a danger and had asked judicial officials for a ruling on a way to remove it.
 
The cargo had been stored at the port since it was confiscated from a ship years earlier. Based on the timeline and the size of the cargo, that ship could be the MV Rhosus. The ship was initially seized in Beirut in 2013 when it entered the port due to technical problems, according to lawyers involved in the case. It came from the nation of Georgia, and had been bound for Mozambique.
 
The stockpile is believed to have detonated after a fire broke out nearby.
 
It caused the most powerful blast ever seen in the city, which has survived decades of war and conflict. Several city blocks were left littered with rubble, broken glass and damaged vehicles.
 
Authorities have cordoned off the port itself, where the blast left a crater 200 yards across and shredded a large grain silo, emptying its contents into the rubble. Estimates suggested about 85% of the country's grain was stored there.
 
Lebanon is highly dependent on imports, and the destruction of the port, along with the worsening cash crisis, have raised fears of shortages.
 
Two planeloads of French rescue workers and aid were sent to Beirut, as Macron offered support for the former protectorate. The countries retain close political and economic ties.
 
Other countries, including Greece, Qatar, Kuwait, Turkey and the European Union, have dispatched medical supplies, humanitarian aid and search-and-rescue teams.

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Christopher Brito contributed to this report.

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Thai Protesters Reinstall Plaque Symbolizing Democracy

By TASSANEE VEJPONGSA, Associated Press

BANGKOK (AP) — Anti-government demonstrators occupying a historic field in the Thai capital on Sunday installed a plaque symbolizing the country's transition to democracy to replace the original one that was mysteriously ripped and stolen three years ago, as they vowed to press on with calls for new elections and reform of the monarchy.

The mass student-led rally that began Saturday is the largest in a series of protests this year, with thousands camping overnight at Sanam Luang field near the royal palace. On Sunday, they began marching to an undisclosed location, saying they want to hand over a petition to the king's adviser.

A group of activists drilled a hole in front of a makeshift stage in Sanam Luang and laid down a round brass plaque, commemorating a 1932 revolution that changed Thailand from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy.

“At the dawn of Sept. 20, here is where the people proclaim that this country belongs to the people,” read part of the inscription on the plaque. In April 2017, the original plaque vanished from Bangkok’s Royal Plaza and was replaced by one praising the monarchy.

“The nation does not belong to only one person, but belongs to us all. Therefore, I would like to ask holy spirits to stay with us and bless the people’s victory,” student leader Parit “Penguin” Chirawak told the crowd.

Another activist, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, said their demands do not propose getting rid of the monarchy. “They are proposals with good intentions to make the institution of the monarchy remain graciously above the people under democratic rule.”

Still, such calls took the nation by surprise. Protesters' demands seek to limit the king’s powers, establish tighter controls on palace finances and allow open discussion of the monarchy. Their boldness was unprecedented, as the monarchy is considered sacrosanct in Thailand with a harsh law that mandates a three- to 15-year prison term for defaming it.

Organizers had predicted that as many as 50,000 people would take part in the weekend’s protest, but Associated Press reporters estimated that around 20,000 people were present by Saturday evening.

“By holding their protest on Sanam Luang — a long-time site of recreation and protest for the people, taken over in recent years by the monarchy — the protestors have won a significant victory,” said Tyrell Haberkorn, a Thai studies scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Their resounding message is that Sanam Luang, and the country, belong to the people.”

The crowd were a disparate batch. They included an LGBTQ contingent waving iconic rainbow banners while red flags sprouted across the area, representing Thailand’s Red Shirt political movement, which battled the country’s military in Bangkok’s streets 10 years ago.

There were skits and music, and speakers gave fiery speeches late Saturday accusing the government of incompetence, corruption in the military and failing to protect women’s rights. At least 8,000 police officers were reportedly deployed for the event.

“The people who came here today came here peacefully and are really calling for democracy,” said Panupong Jadnok, one of the protest leaders.

Their core demands were the dissolution of parliament with fresh elections, a new constitution and an end to intimidation of political activists.

They believe that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who as army commander led a 2014 coup toppling an elected government, was returned to power unfairly in last year’s general election because the laws had been changed to favor a pro-military party. Protesters say a constitution promulgated under military rule is undemocratic.

The students are too young to have been caught up in the sometimes violent partisan battles that roiled Thailand a decade ago, said Kevin Hewison, a University of North Carolina professor emeritus and a veteran Thai studies scholar.

“This is why they look and act differently and why they are so confounding for the regime,” he said. “What the regime and its supporters see is relatively well-off kids turned against them and this confounds them.”

The appearance of the Red Shirts, while boosting the protest numbers, links the new movement to mostly poor rural Thais, supporters of former populist billionaire Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a 2006 coup. Thaksin was opposed by the country’s traditional royalist establishment.

The sometimes violent struggle between Thaksin’s supporters and the conservative foes left Thai society polarized. Thaksin, who now lives in exile, noted on Twitter on Saturday that it was the anniversary of his fall from power and posed the rhetorical question of how the nation had fared since then.

“If we had a good government, a democratic government, our politics, our education and our health care system would be better than this," said protester Amorn Panurang. "This is our dream. And we hope that our dream would come true.”

Arrests for earlier actions on charges including sedition have failed to faze the young activists. They had been denied permission to enter the Thammasat University campus and Sanam Luang on Saturday, but when they pushed, the authorities retreated, even though police warned them that they were breaking the law.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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