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Central Beirut Rocked by 2nd Night of Clashes between Protesters, Police

Central Beirut Rocked by 2nd Night of Clashes between Protesters, Police

Monday, 16 December, 2019 - 06:15
Smoke rises from tear gas fired during anti government protests in Beirut, Lebanon December 15, 2019. (Reuters)

Beirut’s downtown district was the site of a second night of clashes between anti-government protesters and riot police.

The protests Sunday were largely peaceful, but some demonstrators lobbed water bottles and firecrackers at security forces guarding parliament.

After a couple of hours, security forces chased the protesters away, using batons and tear gas.

The protesters dispersed in central Beirut. At one point, someone set fire to two tents set up by protesters in Martyrs' Square, the epicenter for the anti-government protests for 60 days.

After hours of clashes, the army deployed around central Beirut, putting an end to the pitched street battles. The Lebanese Civil Defense said it had treated 46 people for injuries and taken 14 others to hospital. A news photographer was among the injured.

The army first deployed to separate protesters and rival supporters of political groups, according to reports on al-Jadeed. The local TV station filmed soldiers forcing protesters to retreat from central Beirut's squares.

Tension has surfaced between protesters and supporters of the Shiite groups Hezbollah and Amal, after the later rejected criticism of their leaders – Hassan Nasrallah and parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.

Meanwhile, the protesters were angered by what they said was the security forces' harsh crackdown on their rallies while treading lightly when dealing with supporters of the powerful political groups.

The head of the Internal Security Forces, Maj. Gen. Imad Osman, turned up at the protest rally Sunday. He told reporters on the scene that the right to protest was guaranteed by the law. “But calm down, no need for violence,” he said, appealing to protesters.

Protesters had returned despite a fierce crackdown by security forces the night before when clashes also injured dozens.

It marked the most violent unrest in the capital in a historic wave of protests that has swept Lebanon since Oct. 17 and pushed Saad Hariri to resign as prime minister.

The protests erupted from anger at a political elite that has overseen decades of corruption and steered the country toward its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Amnesty International's Diala Haidar decried the "excessive use of force" in response to "overwhelmingly peaceful protest".

"The intention was clearly to prevent protesters gathering," she said, adding that masked men in civilian clothes joined security forces in "violently attacking protesters".

The UN insisted on the importance of the talks, with its Lebanon coordinator Jan Kubis urging politicians to "act responsibly".

"Tomorrow is the moment of truth. Either politicians will show at this critical moment of deep complex crisis they understand the needs of #Lebanon and its people and help steer a peaceful way forward, or that they remain captive of their traditional habits and attitudes," Kubis tweeted.

Sunday’s violence comes on the eve of a meeting between the president and parliamentary blocs in which Hariri is widely expected to be renamed to the post. The tension also reflects deepening divisions in the country that is grappling with a severe liquidity and foreign currency crunch.

The protesters say they won't accept Hariri as prime minister, demanding an independent head of government not affiliated with existing parties.

“Saad, Saad, Saad, don't dream of it anymore,” protesters chanted Sunday.

After weeks of bickering, the political parties failed to put forward independent names, most of them insisting on keeping their political share in the government.

“We will not leave. They are the ones who looted the country. They are the ones who got us here. We want our rights,” said Nadine Farhat, 31, a lawyer protesting on Sunday.

Crowds of men and women ran for cover chanting “revolution, revolution!” as white smoke streaming out of tear gas canisters encircled them. Some hurled the canisters back at riot police standing nearby in body armor.

“They attacked us in a barbaric way, as if we’re not protesting for their sake, their children,” said a protester, Omar Abyad, 25, a nurse who has been unemployed since he graduated two years ago.

Abyad said he rallied on Sunday in part against Hariri’s potential return as prime minister, calling him one of the same faces who have long ruled the country.

Political rifts look set to hinder agreement on the next cabinet, which the country badly needs to ward off an even worse crisis.

Foreign donors say they will only help after there is a cabinet in place that can enact reforms.

Lebanon’s economic woes, long in the making, have come to a head: Pressure has piled on the pegged Lebanese pound. A hard currency crunch has left many importers unable to bring in goods, forcing up prices. And banks have restricted dollar withdrawals.

“There’s no work, no wages, no money, nothing,” Abyad said. “I am in the streets and I have nothing to lose.”

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