Thousands protest against crackdown in Lebanon

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Thousands of Lebanese protesters defiantly returned on Sunday to rally outside parliament in Beirut, hours after security forces chased them out, using tear gas and rubber bullets and injuring dozens.

The protests were largely peaceful, but some lobbed water bottles and firecrackers at security forces guarding parliament. After a couple of hours, security forces chased them away, using batons and tear gas to disperse the crowd.

Saturday night into Sunday saw one of the most violent crackdowns on protesters since nationwide anti-government demonstrations began two months ago, leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri on October 29. The harsh use of force was largely carried out by security forces outside of the parliament building who reacted violently to an earlier attempt to hold a rally outside parliament.

Attackers in northern Lebanon also set fire to the offices of two major political parties, the state-run National News Agency said.

The large crowd that was gathered on Sunday largely dispersed by the evening but hundreds remained in the streets outside parliament. Many had come prepared with helmets and tear gas.

After clashes that included the firing of tear gas, security forces then used water cannons to empty the area around parliament. The remaining protesters used plant pots and bins to barricade themselves, drawing a front line in the street that just hours before was filled with protesters.

Demonstrators had chanted against the security crackdown and called for an independent new head of government unaffiliated with established political parties.

The crowd, many raising Lebanese flags, said: “We won’t leave, We won’t leave. Just arrest all the protesters!”

Others raised posters saying the tear gas won’t keep them away. “We are crying already,” said one, in a jab at the deep economic crisis Lebanese are facing. The streets leading to parliament were filled with men, women and even children. Some huddled in smaller groups while others were lifted on shoulders chanting in megaphones.

The overnight confrontations in Beirut left more than 130 people injured, according to the Red Cross and the Lebanese Civil Defense. The Red Cross said none of the injured were in serious condition and most of them were treated on the spot.

The violence and Sunday’s rally came just hours before the president was due to meet with representatives of parliamentary blocs to name a new prime minister. After weeks of bickering and despite calls from the protesters for a technocratic government, politicians seem set on bringing Hariri back to the post.

The demonstrators were clear they wouldn’t accept his return. “Saad, Saad, Saad, don’t dream of it anymore.”

“I came back today to pressure the parliament to make the right choice tomorrow and choose a prime minister from outside the political parties. If they don’t choose someone acceptable, we will be back to the streets again and again,” said Chakib Abillamah, a protester and businessman who was demonstrating on Saturday when violence broke out.

Caline Mouawad, a lawyer, said she watched as security forces violently broke up the protests and decided to join in solidarity. “What happened last night provoked me. I came down even it means getting beaten tonight.”

Interior Minister Raya al-Hassan on Sunday ordered an investigation into the clashes, which she said injured both protesters and security forces. She said she watched the confrontations “with concern, sadness and shock.”

Al-Hassan blamed “infiltrators” for instigating violence and called on the demonstrators to be wary of those who want to exploit their protests for political reasons. She didn’t elaborate.

The head of the Internal Security Forces, Maj. Gen. Imad Osman, turned up at the protest rally on 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.

In the northern Akkar district, attackers broke the windows and set fire to the local office of Hariri’s political party in the town of Kharibet al-Jundi. Photos circulated on social media of shattered glass and the aftermath of the fire, which torched the building.

In a separate attack in Akkar district, assailants stormed the local office of the largest party in parliament, affiliated with President Michel Aoun and headed by Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. The party said the contents of the office in the town of Jedidat al-Juma had also been smashed and burned.

The mayhem came just hours after the capital was rocked by violence. Lebanese security forces fired rubber bullets, tear gas and used water cannons throughout the night to disperse anti-government protesters from the city center - the epicenter of the protest movement in Beirut - and around parliament. The protests had largely been peacefully since they began on October 17.

The Lebanese Civil Defense said it had treated 46 people for injuries and taken 14 others to hospital.

The clashes rocked a commercial district of Beirut for hours late into the night, and army soldiers closed off some streets.

Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces said they fired tear gas after demonstrators pelted them with fireworks and stones. On Twitter, the ISF called on protesters to leave the streets.

“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.

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

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