More than 160 wounded in Beirut as security forces face off against protesters

Anti-government protesters walk through clouds of tear gas during clashes with security forces in the central downtown district of the Lebanese capital near the parliament headquarters on January 18, 2020. (AFP)

Clashes between angry protesters and security forces in Lebanon’s capital Beirut on Saturday wounded more than 160 people from both sides, the Red Cross said.

“Over 65 people... have been taken to nearby hospitals and over 100 people have been treated at the scene,” a spokesman said, after violence broke out in the afternoon in reaction to continued deadlock over forming a new cabinet.

Earlier, security forces in Beirut fired tear gas and used water cannons on Saturday in clashes with protesters armed with tree branches and sign posts near Lebanon’s parliament.

 The protest movement rocking Lebanon since October 17 has revived this week over delays in forming a new cabinet to address the country’s growing economic crisis.

After a lull in largely peaceful protests, people filled the streets across the country again. They are furious at a ruling elite that has steered the country towards its worst economic crisis in decades.

No progress appears to have been made towards a final Cabinet lineup, which protesters demand be comprised of independent experts and exclude all traditional political parties.

On Saturday afternoon, demonstrators set out from various spots in Beirut in a march towards the city centre under the slogan “We won’t pay the price.”

ALSO READ: Lebanon’s Aoun, Hariri ask army, security chiefs to restore calm in Beirut

Police wielding batons and firing tear gas have wounded dozens of people at protests in recent days, alarming human rights groups.

Anger at the banks - which have curbed people’s access to their savings - boiled over, with protesters smashing bank facades and ATMs on Tuesday night.

Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces said on Saturday that police in Beirut were being “violently and directly” confronted at one of the entrances to the parliament. In a tweet, it called on people to leave the area for their own safety.

Witnesses said they saw young men hurling stones and flower pots towards riot police, while protesters tried to push through an entrance to a heavily barricaded district of central Beirut, which includes the parliament.

Hundreds of protesters marched and chanted against the political class in other parts of the capital. A large banner at one of the rallies read: “If the people go hungry, they will eat their rulers.”

Security forces sprayed young men with two water cannons and lobbed tear gas over a metal fence to disperse remaining protesters on the wet tarmac.

“A direct and violent confrontation is taking place with anti-riot police at one of the entrances to parliament,” the Internal Security Forces said on Twitter.

“We ask peaceful protesters to keep away from the site of the rioting for their safety.”

An AFP photographer saw young men uproot parking meters.

He also saw around 10 people faint from the tear gas.

A female protester named Maya, 23, said she was attending the protest because politicians still seemed to be ignoring demands for an overhaul of the old political class.

“I’m here because after more than 90 days in the streets, they’re still squabbling over their shares in government... It’s as if they didn’t see our movement,” she told AFP.

“Popular anger is the solution,” the young protester said.   

“Outrageous that the Riot Police attacked people and fired tear gas inside the Mohammad Al Amin mosque, where women, children, and the injured were taking refuge,” tweeted human rights researcher Aya Majzoub.

Protest camp on fire 

A fire engulfed a protest camp in central Beirut on Saturday evening, burning tents and sending plumes of smoke into the air, as security forces faced off against protesters near parliament.

It was not immediately clear what had caused the fire. The Internal Security Forces (ISF) denied media reports that some of its forces had set the camp on fire.

Activists set up the camp in recent months as part of protests against a political class that plunged the country into its worst economic crisis in decades.

The unrest, which stemmed from anger at corruption and the rising cost of living, forced Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri to resign in October. Feuding politicians have since failed to agree a new cabinet or rescue plan.

Forming a new cabinet is often convoluted in Lebanon, where a complex system seeks to maintain balance between the country’s many political parties and religious confessions.

But protesters say they want to scrap the old system, and demand only impartial technocrats staff a new government to address their growing economic woes, including a severe liquidity crisis.

The last government stepped down under pressure from the street on October 29, but has remained in a caretaker capacity until a new cabinet takes shape.

The World Bank has warned that the poverty rate in Lebanon could rise from a third to a half if the political crisis is not remedied fast.

The Lebanese pound has lost nearly half its value, while dollar shortages have driven up prices and confidence in the banking system has collapsed.

- With Agencies

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