Violence escalates in Beirut as protesters clash with police

International

Riot policemen watch flames rise from the tents of anti-government protesters, which where set on fire by civilian men believed to be the private unit of the parliament guards, during ongoing protests against the political elites who have ruled the country for decades, in Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020. Riot police fired tear gas and sprayed water cannon near parliament in Lebanon’s capital Saturday to disperse thousands of protesters after riots broke out during a march against the ruling elite amid a severe economic crisis. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

BEIRUT (AP) — Security forces fired tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets in clashes Sunday with hundreds of anti-government protesters outside Lebanon’s Parliament, as violence continued to escalate in a week of rioting.

At least 114 people were injured in the protests, according to the Red Cross and the Lebanese Civil Defense teams, with 47 taken to hospitals for treatment. Most of the wounds were from rubber bullets, some in the face and upper body, an Associated Press reporter said. Among the injured from rubber bullets were at least two journalists, including one from the local TV station Al-Jadeed news who was struck in the hand.

Demonstrators threw rocks and other projectiles and even shot a stream of fire from ignited aerosol cans. Security forces responded with tear gas and water cannons before turning to rubber bullets to try to disperse the crowds. A few protesters tried to climb metal barriers separating them from the riot police. Hundreds more, some chanting “Revolution,” gathered farther down the blocked street that leads to the Parliament in central Beirut.

Army troops were deployed to the area briefly, and the violence stopped as protesters cheered the troops. But the army pulled out minutes later, and the clashes resumed with security forces barricaded behind the barriers.

By late Sunday night, security forces and army troops were deployed in large formations to the blocked streets. Amid a downpour of rain and the advance of security forces, protesters retreated and the situation calmed in central Beirut. Army patrols briefly roamed the streets to prevent protesters from returning to outside the Parliament.

During the rioting, protesters smashed the windows of two stores affiliated with an outgoing minister from the government they had accused of corruption. In one of the stores, a telecommunication company, the protesters smashed the windows and trashed the contents of the store as security alarms blared.

Security forces reinforced the metal barriers surrounding the Parliament building earlier in the day, after the worst night of violence since the unrest erupted several months ago.

There were nine hours of street battles with security forces Saturday as some protesters tried to scale the barriers. Those clashes left at least 377 people injured, the Red Cross and the Lebanese Civil Defense said. More than 120 were treated in hospitals, including a protester with an eye injury, as well as members of the security forces. Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces said 142 of its members were injured, including seven officers, some with serious concussions.

Lawyers defending protesters said 43 were arrested Saturday, including two minors. They said 11 were released the same day, and the other 32 were released Sunday, pending investigation. Most of the detainees were beaten while in custody, the lawyers added.

The military made a show of force Sunday, with large numbers deployed in downtown Beirut and in southern Lebanon, patrolling ahead of the rallies. Riot police were in the front line guarding the Parliament.

The clashes took place amid a rapidly worsening financial crisis and an ongoing impasse over the formation of a new government. Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the rest of the government resigned in late October. Prime Minister-designate Hassan Diab had been expected to announce a new 18-member Cabinet on Sunday after meeting with President Michel Aoun, but there was no announcement after a 90-minute meeting, signaling another delay among the fractious political leaders.

The protests, which began in October, took a violent turn last week as popular frustration began to rise. Demonstrators say the political elite has ignored their calls for forming an independent government to tackle the deepening crisis.

“We don’t accept the government the way they are forming it. They are using the old method to form the government … so it’s not acceptable,” said protester Jil Samaha. “We want a different way of forming a government.”

Demonstrators have been rallying against those who have held power since the end of the 1975-90 civil war. They blame politicians for widespread corruption and mismanagement in a country that has accumulated one of the largest debt ratios in the world.

Panic and anger have gripped the public as the Lebanese pound, pegged to the dollar for more than two decades, plummeted in value. It lost more than 60% of its value in recent weeks on the black market. The economy has seen no growth and flows of foreign currency dried up in the already heavily indebted country that relies on imports for most basic goods.

Protesters targeted commercial banks, which have imposed informal capital controls, limiting the withdrawal of dollars and foreign transfers.

Interior Minister Raya El Hassan on Saturday condemned the attacks on security forces and public and private property as “totally unacceptable.”

However, Human Rights Watch described the response by the security forces as “brutal,” and called for an urgent end to a “culture of impunity” for police abuse.

“There was no justification for the brutal use of force unleashed by Lebanon’s riot police against largely peaceful demonstrators in downtown Beirut,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at HRW.

Security forces and the military had prepared for more violence by blocking access to some buildings in central Beirut with razor wire, and closing access to areas that included a popular tourist site. Workers also welded fencing together across roads leading to Parliament.

On Beirut’s rain-dampened streets early in the day, shopkeepers, banks and other businesses swept up broken glass and boarded up windows. Workers at one bank took down a large sign to remove any identification to avoid angering protesters, who smashed the windows and the facade of Lebanon’s Banking Association headquarters with metal bars on Saturday night. The demonstrators widely blame financial institutions, alongside government corruption, for the crippling economic crisis.

Soot and ashes still littered the ground where security forces burned the tents of the protesters who staged a sit-in.

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Associated Press writers David Rising and Dalal Mawad in Beirut contributed.

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

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