Lebanon News

Clashes escalate in central Beirut

Anti-government protesters throw stones at riot police barricading at the entrance to Parliament. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Protests turned violent once again Sunday, as hundreds of people gathered outside Nijmeh Square, before riot police and Lebanese Army members deployed on the ground to disperse protesters. The crowds assembled a day after one of the fiercest confrontations since the country’s nationwide anti-government protests first erupted.

At least 90 people were injured during Sunday’s events. According to the Lebanese Red Cross, 38 people were transported to hospital and 52 were treated at the scene.

Rain initially appeared to deter crowds from returning in the large numbers seen the previous night, following calls for demonstrators to head back to Nijmeh Square under the slogan “No turning back.”

As protesters grew in numbers, many threw rocks and firecrackers at security forces, while others pushed against and attempted to climb the metal barricades obstructing access to Nijmeh Square, where the Parliament is located.

Rubber bullets, rounds of tear gas and water cannons were fired at protesters by security forces, amid a heavy deployment of Lebanese Army soldiers.

News channel Al-Jadeed said via Twitter that one of its reporters had been hit and injured by rubber bullets, which had been “used excessively by security forces.”

Later in the evening, a large number of riot police accompanied by Army soldiers moved from near Beirut Souks toward the main road near Beirut Municipality before dividing and going in different directions in an apparent move to encircle demonstrators.

The large deployment, accompanied by heavy rain, dispersed protesters. Some sought refuge at the Kataeb Headquarters in Saifi.

During the confrontations, security forces and riot police fired tear gas and pushed most of the protesters away from Nijmeh Square toward the Al Nahar building, but they later returned.

Shortly after tensions escalated, the Internal Security Forces used Twitter to appeal to protesters for calm and to refrain from vandalizing public and private property, and attacking security forces.

Sunday marked the 95th day of mass demonstrations across the country, in which Lebanese have protested against political deadlock that has left the country without a government amid the worst economic crisis it has faced since the Civil War (1990-75).

Earlier Sunday State Prosecutor Judge Ghassan Oueidat ordered the release of 34 people detained the previous night. The majority of the 34 detainees were held at the Helou police barracks, the state-run National News Agency reported.

Lebanese Army Commander Gen. Joseph Aoun met with Internal Security Forces chief Maj. Gen. Imad Othman Sunday at Helou police barracks to ensure ongoing coordination between the two agencies, following a night of violent clashes with protesters.

“[Aoun] underscored that follow-up and coordination will remain ongoing, in order to maintain security, preserve order and prevent infringement on public and private properties,” an ISF statement said.

During the meeting Othman briefed Aoun on procedures taken during protests, which he said gradually heighten based on the level of aggression of demonstrators and vandalism against private and public property.

Caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri responded to the violence by saying the way to calm escalating tensions was to “stop wasting time” and move forward with government formation.

“There is a way to calm the popular storm. Stop wasting time, form a government and open the door to political and economic solutions,” Hariri said via Twitter.

“To keep the army, security forces and protesters in a state of confrontation is to circle inside the problem,” he added.

“Another day without a government, another night of violence and clashes,” United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis said in a tweet Sunday.

Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt tweeted that “dialogue between political forces should prevail regardless of difference,” condemning the violence that broke out the previous night.

The ISF stated in a tweet that 142 members were injured in Saturday night’s protests, including seven officers. There were three serious injuries, involving skull fractures.

During Saturday’s events at least 377 people sought medical attention for injuries suffered in the clashes, according to numbers from both the Lebanese Red Cross and the Civil Defense.

Caretaker Interior Minister Raya El-Hassan said Saturday night, via Twitter, that she had pledged to protect peaceful demonstrations, but for protests to “turn into a blatant attack on security forces, and public and private property is condemned and unacceptable.”

Riot police fired hundreds of rounds of tear gas at crowds, who spread from Saifi to the Ring Bridge, launching fireworks and throwing rocks. Protesters threw tear gas back at police, some even using tennis rackets to volley the canisters.

Police also shot rubber bullets at protesters, causing multiple injuries.

The “Week of Anger,” as it has been dubbed by many activists, has been in full swing with crowds gathering in front of Parliament and banks in several locations in condemnation of the country’s deteriorating economic situation and living standards.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 20, 2020, on page 2.

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