Lebanon: Hundreds wounded as security forces clashed with anti-government protesters

Scores of people were wounded in Beirut after security forces used tear gas and water cannon to disperse crowds of anti-government protesters trying to reach Martyrs’ Square, the hub of a months-long protest movement calling for changes to Lebanon’s political and financial systems.

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

But before they all converged near the road leading to Parliament, dozens of protesters flung rocks, traffic signs and tree branches at security forces guarding the institution, local television channels showed.

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

The Red Cross said that more than 160 people from both sides were wounded in the clashes.

“Over 65 people … have been taken to nearby hospitals and over 100 people have been treated at the scene,” a spokesman said.

“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.”

Security forces failed to push protesters away from Martyrs’ Square, the epicentre of the protest movement. Angry protesters said that they would not back down and would continue to demand change.

President Michel Aoun ordered the army and security commanders to restore calm, while Saad Hariri, who resigned as prime minister in October, said the violence threatened civil peace. “It is an insane, suspicious and rejected scene,” he wrote on Twitter.

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

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

Commenting on the developments, Rami Khouri, a journalism professor at the American University of Beirut said that “people are exasperated by what they see as total disdain by their government.

“There have been three months of protest but there are very few statements from the government. It barely talks to the people and that is what angers them [the protesters].

“People are expressing extreme anger at leaders they see as in cahoots with each other, at the banking system and political elite working together.”

Forming a new cabinet is often convoluted in Lebanon, where a complex system seeks to maintain a 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.

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