Supporters of Lebanon's two main Shiite groups Hezbollah and Amal clashed with security forces and set fires to cars in the capital early Tuesday, angered by a video circulating online that showed a man insulting Shiite religious and political figures, heightening sectarian tensions..
A group of young men, apparently supporters of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, led by parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, set at least three cars on fire and hurled stones and firecrackers at riot police.
Police used tear gas and water cannons trying to disperse them.
Ignoring calls for restraint by politicians, they tried to break a security cordon to storm the square where demonstrators have set up tents as part of an anti-government protest that has been going on for weeks.
In the vicinity of the area close to a main road that links the capital’s eastern and western sections, scores of youths burnt tires, smashed office buildings and torched several cars, live coverage by local television stations showed.
The protesters camped in the square have been targeted by Shiite groups in the past angered by chants against their political leaders, although Tuesday’s violence was of an overtly sectarian nature.
In the predominately Sunni populated city of Sidon in southern Lebanon, groups of masked youths stormed into a main square where they set ablaze several tents set up by demonstrators who have camped for weeks, local television stations said.
It was the third consecutive night of violence, and came hours after Lebanon's president postponed talks on naming a new prime minister, further prolonging the turmoil and unrest in the country.
Lebanon has been gripped by a historic wave of protests since October 17 leading to the resignation of Saad Hariri as prime minister, amid anger at the government’s failure to address the country’s worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.
President Michel Aoun postponed the binding consultations with leaders of parliamentary blocs after the only candidate — Hariri — failed to win the backing of the country's largest Christian groups amid a worsening economic and financial crisis.
The presidential palace said the consultations would be held instead on Thursday, based on a request from Hariri.
The postponement followed a violent weekend that saw the toughest crackdown on anti-government demonstrations in two months.
The UN special coordinator for Lebanon, Jan Kubis, had warned that because of the collapsing economy, such postponements are “a risky hazard both for the politicians but even more so" for the people.
Lebanon is enduring its worst economic and financial crisis in decades with a massive debt, widespread layoffs and unprecedented capital controls imposed by local banks amid a shortage in liquidity.
Earlier, the country's main Christian groups said they refused to back Hariri, who has served as premier three times.
His office said in a statement that he is keen for national accord, adding that had he been named to the post, it would have been “without the participation of any of the large Christian blocs."
Under Lebanon's power-sharing system, the prime minister has to be a Sunni, the president a Maronite Christian and the parliament speaker from the Shiite community. Hariri has emerged as the only candidate with enough backing for the job, but he is rejected by protesters who demand a Cabinet of independent technocrats and an independent head of government not affiliated with existing parties.
Although the protests had united all sectarian and ethnic groups against the ruling elite, tensions had surfaced from the start between protesters and supporters of Hezbollah and Amal, after the latter rejected criticism of its leaders.
Hariri had asked the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for help developing a reform plan to address the economic crisis.
Moody's Investors Service said that without technical support from the IMF, World Bank and international donors, it was increasingly likely that Lebanon could see “a scenario of extreme macroeconomic instability in which a debt restructuring occurs with an abrupt destabilization of the currency peg resulting in very large losses for private investors.”
Its currency has been pegged at 1,507 Lebanese pounds to the dollar since 1997, but in recent weeks it has reached more than 2,000 in the black market. Lebanon's debt stands at $87 billion or 150 percent of GDP.