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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Lebanese protesters accuse riot police of attempting to crack down on peaceful demonstrators with excessive force on Saturday evening in Beirut after authorities using rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons.
They pointed out that just hours earlier, police responded to attacks by supporters from a stronghold loyal to Shiite party Amal who threw rocks and fireworks at police, wounding officers, with a comparatively more muted reaction.
“Security forces show a lot more restraint with the groups of men who come from the neighbourhood of Khandaq Al Ghamiq and elsewhere to attack protesters and their encampment in downtown Beirut, and that's, of course, a political decision”, said independent Lebanese journalist Lara Bitar, who witnessed the clashes on Saturday evening.
The downtown adjacent neighbourhood of Khandaq Al Ghamiq, a stronghold of Hezbollah’s Shiite ally Amal, has made headlines since protests began. Chanting slogans such as “Shiite, Shiite”, or expressing their loyalty to party leader and parliament speaker Nabih Berri, groups of men from the area have attacked protesters downtown several times and burnt their tents, starting on the day of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation on October 29. Local media at the time reported that the men were angered because they thought protesters had insulted Mr Berri.
On Saturday afternoon, clashes erupted again in central Beirut between riot police and young men from Khandaq Al Ghamiq, some of them wearing masks, as they attempted to enter the city centre.
The Internal Security Forces tweeted a video showing groups of men throwing stones and fireworks at riot police and warned that these attacks “must be stopped,” or the ISF would “take additional and stronger measures.”
They were eventually dispersed with tear gas by the riot police, two of whom were hospitalised after being hit by stones.
Amal representatives have told local media that they have nothing to do with these men. None of them have been arrested as yet, despite the hundreds of arrests of peaceful demonstrations in the nearly two months of protests. Detainees are usually released after a few hours.
One woman, who asked to remain anonymous because she lives in an Amal dominated neighbourhood of Beirut and fears retaliation, said that she believed that the men from Khandaq Al Ghamiq are being protected. “There is no other explanation,” she said. “There are orders from [Nabih] Berri to not touch them.”
An Amal spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on Sunday.
A few hours after the clashes, several hundred protesters, including many women, gathered peacefully in the city centre, chanting slogans hostile to politicians and repeating oft-heard demands of better government services. They were joined by groups of people from the northern city of Tripoli and the eastern region of the Bekaa, according to local news reports.
“We were there to reclaim public space,” said the woman, who took part in the protest.
The crackdown that followed was "the most violent" since protests began on October 17, she told The National.
Eyewitnesses such as Ms Bitar said that riot police started firing tear gas and beating protesters around 7 pm because some people attempted to enter Nejmeh Square, an area of the city centre where parliament is located that has long been cornered off.
Videos show protesters chanting “shabiha, shabiha” at the police, using the Arabic term for partisan thugs widely used for some of the most brutal pro-Damascus regime militias in Syria.
But the anonymous witness said that the backlash came “out of nowhere”.
According to her, men from Khandaq Al Ghamiq who were chanting “Khandaq, Khandaq” and threatened to “break Parliament” had infiltrated the protests.
“We asked the police to remove them and they refused,” said the woman.
The fighting reached a building belonging to the Christian Kataeb party that was reportedly open to protesters who wanted to find shelter. The party is not represented in government, positioning itself as an opposition, but has been accused of trying to ride the wave of protests.
Street fights dragged on until the early hours of the morning, when the last few protesters were dispersed with water cannons. “We lasted so long because we got smarter. We had gas masks, steel-toed shoes, goggles, hard hats, fireproof gloves and thick jackets”, said the woman.
Ms Bitar also pointed out that Parliamentary Police were likely involved due to the proximity of the protest to the Parliament building.
“Security forces were hitting people indiscriminately, targeting sensitive parts of the body and hitting people on the head”, said Ms Bitar. “They fired an excessive amount of tear gas for hours on end. There was also the presence of parliamentary guards in civilian clothes last night who were brutally going after demonstrators with batons and stun guns,” she added.
Be aware of those trying to exploit the protests with the aim of creating clashes with security forces
Caretaker Interior Minister Raya El Hassan
Riot police fired rubber bullets at protesters, aiming below the waist, according to one eyewitness. Human Rights Watch has documented the use of rubber bullets in Lebanon several times since the beginning of protests, including at least one case in which security forces aimed at a protester’s face.
Videos circulated on social media showing people sarcastically clapping their hands at deadpan riot police walking past them, saying: “if only we had seen you being such heroes with the men from Khandaq.”
Aya Majzoub, Lebanon and Bahrein researcher at HRW, told The National that “there is no excuse for the amount of violence used by security forces against protesters last night.”
“The Lebanese authorities should immediately initiate an independent and impartial investigation into yesterday’s attacks and ensure those responsible are held to account. The authorities cannot think that they can beat away people’s grievances.”
Caretaker Interior Minister Raya El Hassan said on Sunday that she has ordered an ISF investigation into Saturday night’s violence and called on demonstrators to “be aware of those trying to exploit the protests with the aim of creating clashes with security forces."
The exact number of arrests and wounded remains unclear. Ayman Raad, a lawyer who works closely with protesters, told The National that around 55 people were hospitalised, though many more were treated on the ground. Ten people were detained and released on Sunday, he said.
The civil defence said in a press release on Saturday evening that 25 were hurt, while the Red Cross reported 14. Riot police published a statement saying that 23 officers were injured.
The anonymous woman said that the violence had only hardened her resolve, just one day ahead of Parliamentary consultations that are widely expected to result in the nomination of Saad Hariri as Lebanon’s new prime minister. The move is widely rejected by protesters.
“We are done being peaceful. We are humans at the end of the day. How many times can we take the beating without responding,” she asked.
Updated: December 15, 2019 06:11 PM
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