Police fire into air at Beirut protest as banks smashed

Police fire into air at Beirut protest as banks smashed
Police fire into air at Beirut protest as banks smashed

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Lebanese police used live fire to disperse protesters in west Beirut’s Hamra area on Tuesday night and fired dozens of rounds of teargas, filling the narrow streets with choking fumes as rioters smashed banks and threw rocks at authorities.

Lebanese demonstrators have taken to the streets again this week to demand an end to a months-long political vacuum, starting what protesters have billed a "week of wrath".

Although protests had declined in size in recent weeks, demonstrations have been ongoing since mid-October, increasingly targeting banks and state institutions blamed for driving Lebanon towards collapse.

Protesters resumed blocking major highways on Tuesday before anti-riot police armed with batons and shields charged hundreds of demonstrators outside the Lebanese central bank, an AFP correspondent said.

The charge dispersed the crowd, some of whom smashed paving stones to hurl them at police while others distributed onions to ward off the effects of the tear gas.

The civil defence said it had treated civilians and members of the police for light injuries at the scene, without saying how many, while others who had been wounded were taken to hospital, it said.

On Twitter, the security forces denounced "attacks" led by "rioters" who had thrown stones and firecrackers at police.

The unprecedented cross-sectarian movement has been fuelled by a crippling economic crisis, the worst since Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

Debt-burdened Lebanon has been without a government after Saad Hariri resigned as prime minister on October 29, as political parties fail to agree on the makeup of a new team.

"Rebel, Beirut," dozens of protesters chanted as they marched to the sound of drums towards the home of premier-designate Hassan Diab, who has struggled to form a cabinet since he was named on December 19.

"I want a government that can resolve the economic crisis as quickly as possible," said Nour, a 31-year-old marcher.

As a liquidity crisis grows and the cost of living rises, protesters have returned to the streets to urge politicians to swiftly form a cabinet of experts to respond to their demands.

On Tuesday morning, dozens of protesters blocked key highways in and around Beirut with overturned rubbish bins and burning tyres.

Laila Youssef, 47, said she was taking part to call on politicians to wake up.

"We've gone back to closing down roads because we can't stand it anymore," the mother of three told AFP. "What we earn today is not enough to buy the basics for home."

Many Lebanese have lost their jobs or seen their salaries reduced by half in recent months. Even those who are still being paid have seen the real value of their incomes fall as the official pegged rate of 1507 Lebanese Lira to the dollar has slipped on the black market to well over 2000 to the dollar making goods more expensive.

A 75-year-old who refused to give his name said he was protesting against the "mafia gangs" in power.

"To humiliate the Lebanese people, they formed mafia gangs with the banks and took out all the dollars," he charged.

In a televised speech, President Michel Aoun acknowledged the delay in agreeing on a new cabinet line-up but appealed for more time to find suitable candidates.

"What is needed is a government... to address the pressing economic and financial crisis," he told foreign envoys.

"The formation of this government demands choosing competent individuals who deserve the trust of the people and parliament, which takes time," he said.

Still acting as the caretaker prime minister, Mr Hariri pushed back at calls by his outgoing administration to meet to discuss urgent matters saying that what was needed was an agreement on a new government.

“The caretaker government has some powers and we are using these powers. Imagine that I talk to the World Bank and agree on something, can I implement this agreement with a caretaker government? No, I cannot. A government that has the confidence of parliament and works normally can. The solution today is to form a government,” he told reporters after a meeting of the parliamentary Future Movement bloc on Tuesday.

There were also demonstrations Tuesday in the provinces, including in the second city of Tripoli in the north and the south-east town of Hasbayya, Lebanese television channels showed.

In Tripoli, 30-year-old Alaa Khodr said he and other protesters wanted a government to be formed rapidly without any representatives of traditional political parties.

"We want a government as soon as possible because the economic situation can no longer wait and the country is sliding towards collapse," he told AFP.

The protests had dwindled to symbolic gatherings in recent weeks after Diab, a professor and former education minister, was nominated last month.

But Lebanese have returned to the streets since Saturday, when hundreds gathered across the country to vent their frustration.

The protesters are demanding a new government made up solely of independent technocrats, but analysts warn this may be a tall order in a country ruled by a sectarian power-sharing system since the end of the civil war.

The World Bank has warned of a recession that may see the proportion of people living in poverty climb from a third to half the population.

Even before the protests began, economic growth in Lebanon had slowed sharply in the face of repeated political deadlocks in recent years, compounded by the war in neighbouring Syria.

Updated: January 15, 2020 10:11 AM

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