Police use tear gas, water cannon to disperse Beirut protesters who say they are tired of waiting for change.
Protesters threw stones at security forces who fired back with tear gas and water cannon during the most violent weekend in Lebanon‘s capital since the beginning of mostly peaceful demonstrations three months ago.
It was the second consecutive night that violence erupted as people grow frustrated by the worsening financial crisis and impasse over the formation of a new government.
Medics said 90 people were injured in the latest clashes, taking the casualty toll to more than 460 wounded in two days.
“We have seen the Red Cross evacuating a number of wounded for what has really become a battleground outside parliament square,” reported Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr from Beirut.
According to Khodr, people said they have no other choice than “turning a peaceful movement into a violent campaign against the ruling elite” because their demands have been ignored.
Crowds yelled “revolution” as they gathered on Sunday. Young men tried to climb over barbed wire and fencing to storm a heavily barricaded part of central Beirut that includes parliament. One man jabbed police with a pole across the barriers.
Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) urged people to remain calm and said otherwise it would be forced to repel them.
“We’re not scared. This is all for our future and our children,” said Bassam Taleb, a shoemaker, at the protest.
“The country is frozen. The state is not doing a thing, they’re a bunch of thieves. And if you have money in the bank you can’t even get a hundred dollars out.”
The state-run National News Agency (NNA) said two journalists were hit by rubber-coated bullets, one a cameraman from local television channel Al Jadeed.
President Michel Aoun called for a “security meeting” on Monday with the interior and defence ministers to discuss the crisis, NNA reported.
Security forces, including the Lebanese military, were heavily deployed in downtown Beirut after the worst violence since the unrest erupted last October. Police spent the day reinforcing concrete barriers and stringing coils of razor-wire across main thoroughfares.
Lebanon’s public prosecutor, meanwhile, ordered the release of 34 people on Sunday who were detained after clashes the night previous in which more than 370 people were injured.
On Saturday night, riot police fired volleys of tear gas and rubber-coated bullets to disperse thousands of demonstrators. The protesters, who came from the country’s north, east and the capital itself, clubbed security forces with tree branches and metal bars and fired flares and fireworks while lobbing stones and other projectiles.
The pitched street battles lasted for nearly nine hours, with both protesters and the government trading blame for the violence.
The ISF said 142 of its members were injured, including some with serious concussions.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) described the security force response as “brutal” and called for an urgent end to a “culture of impunity” for police abuse.
The #Lebanon authorities should launch a swift independent and transparent investigation into the unacceptable levels of violence that the police used against overwhelmingly peaceful protesters and media workers doing their job on January 15. https://t.co/26Icc4t6zL pic.twitter.com/xx5hknYzyV
— Human Rights Watch (@hrw) January 18, 2020
“Riot police showed a blatant disregard for their human rights obligations, instead launching tear gas canisters at protesters’ heads, firing rubber bullets in their eyes, and attacking people at hospitals and a mosque,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at HRW.
Prime Minister-designate Hassan Diab was expected to announce an 18-member cabinet on Friday, but last-minute disputes among political factions scuttled his latest attempt.
The formation of a new government composed of factions belonging to the current political elite is unlikely to mitigate the protesters’ anger.
“Those in power are engaged in negotiations among themselves to form a new government, but this is not what people want,” said Khodr, adding protesters are demanding an independent government free of the influence of established political parties, as well as an early election.
Demonstrators have rallied against the country’s political elite who have ruled Lebanon 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 their local currency, pegged to the dollar for more than two decades, plummeted.
The Lebanese pound lost more than 60 percent of its value in recent weeks on the black market.
The economy has seen no growth and foreign inflows dried up in the already heavily indebted country that relies on imports for most of its basic goods.