Beirut sees another night of tear gas ahead of talks for new prime minister

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - For a second consecutive night in Beirut, clouds of tear gas billowed through the streets as protesters on Sunday clashed with police near Parliament.

The renewed scuffles came on the eve of much-delayed talks between political blocs to elect a new prime minister six weeks after Saad Hariri resigned.

Caretaker interior minister Raya El Hassan ordered security forces to start a "rapid and transparent" enquiry after dozens were wounded on Saturday night when police pushed protesters away from parliament with batons, tear gas and rubber bullets.

Ms El Hassan has come under criticism from protesters for failing to stop gangs of political supporters attacking protest camps as well as for a muted police response to the violence while security forces have beaten and arrested dozens of peaceful demonstrators.

On social media, users have shared images and videos from the two nights of clashes between protesters, police and political supporters, quoting Ms El Hassan during an interview with CNN on October 20 when asked about failures of security forces to stop attacks on demonstrators to which she responded, “sometimes bad things happen.”

Undaunted by the violence, thousands of demonstrators flooded central Beirut Sunday ahead of the parliamentary consultations due to begin on Monday to elect a new head of government after nearly two months of largely peaceful nationwide street protests.

A Lebanese riot police officer throws tear gas grenades at protesters during clashes in central Beirut, Lebanon. EPA

A riot police runs for cover during anti government protests in Beirut, Lebanon. REUTERS

Protesters stand near burning tents during anti government protests in Beirut, Lebanon. REUTERS

Protesters throw stones at riot police during clashes in central Beirut, Lebanon. EPA

Protesters throw stones at riot police during clashes in central Beirut, Lebanon. EPA

Protesters throw stones at riot police, next burning tents during clashes in central Beirut, Lebanon. EPA

A protesters kicks a tear gas grenades back at riot police during clashes in central Beirut, Lebanon. EPA

Protesters blockade the street as they throw stones at riot police during clashes in central Beirut, Lebanon. EPA

Police officers extinguish fires set in the tents of the demonstrators during clashes in central Beirut, Lebanon. EPA

A protester waves the Lebanese flag and flashes a victory as he stands facing riot police during clashes in central Beirut, Lebanon. EPA

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The unprecedented rallies have swept Lebanon since October 17, demanding the overhaul of a political system deemed inept and corrupt and the formation of an independent government of technocrats.

In Sunday night’s clashes, demonstrators threw water bottles and firecrackers at the security forces who responded with tear gas and water cannon.

Again groups of men descended on Downton from the nearby Amal majority Khandaq Al Ghamiq neighbourhood, leading to a standoff with groups of protesters. In recent weeks, men chanting sectarian slogans and their support for Amal leader and parliament speaker Nabih Berri have attacked demonstrators, burned their protest camps and tried to drive them from the streets.

On Sunday night, however, several hundred protesters faced off against the groups and the two sides threw rocks at each other until soldiers intervened to separate the groups.

There was no immediate reports of casualties although the Skeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom reported that Reuters photographer Mohammed Azakir was wounded when he was hit in the face with a rock thrown by parliamentary police.

The clashes threatened a repeat of scenes on Saturday evening when dozens of people were hurt when security forces used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators who tried to breach metal barricades near the legislature.

The Lebanese civil defence said they took 36 injured to hospital and treated 54 people at the scene on Saturday night. The Lebanese Red Cross said it ferried 15 people to hospitals, while 37 others were given first aid on site.

The Red Cross said the injured included protesters and security forces, with some affected by tear gas and others struck by stones.

Lebanese security forces said about 20 officers were hospitalised.

AFP reported witnessing men in plainclothes hitting protesters on Saturday, while anti-riot police fired rubber bullets at protesters throwing stones.

Ms El Hassan has demanded the identification of those responsible for the most violent episode since the anti-government protests began in October.

She warned against "infiltrators" seeking to use protests to provoke "confrontations".

Lebanese riot policemen run from firecrackers fired by the supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal Movement groups. AP

A member of the Lebanese riot police looks on after clashes with supporters of Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah and Amal groups on December 14, 2019, in central Beirut. AFP

Lebanese riot police react to fireworks thrown by supporters of Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah and Amal groups during clashes on December 14, 2019 in central Beirut. AFP

Supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal Movement groups, background, launch firecrackers at riot policemen as they try to attack anti-government protesters. AP

Lebanon has been facing its worst economic crisis in decades, amid nationwide protests that began on October 17 against the ruling political class that demonstrators accuse of mismanagement and corruption. AP

A supporter of Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah and Amal groups gestures towards riot police. AFP

Supporters of Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah and Amal groups (background) throw fireworks towards Lebanese riot police during clashes on December 14, 2019, in central Beirut. AFP

A supporter of the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal Movement groups holds firecrackers to fire it at the riot police. AP

A supporter of the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal Movement groups stands in the smoke of tear gas and reacts to the riot police in downtown Beirut. AP

Lebanese riot police react to fireworks thrown by supporters of Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah and Amal groups. AFP

Lebanese riot policemen react to firecrackers that were fired by the supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal Movement groups. AP

Lebanese riot policemen react to firecrackers that fired by the supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal Movement groups. AP

Riot police officers arrest an anti-government protesters trying to enter parliament square in downtown Beirut. AP

Lebanon has been facing its worst economic crisis in decades, amid nationwide protests that began on October 17 against the ruling political class which demonstrators accuse of mismanagement and corruption. AP

A riot police officer fires tear gas from a launcher against anti-government protesters trying to enter parliament square in downtown Beirut. AP

Protesters wave the Lebanese flag in front of riot police during clashes in central Beirut. EPA

Protesters flee tear gas after they threw stones at riot police during clashes in central Beirut. EPA

A riot police officer stands next of a Christmas tree during a protest. AP

A riot police officer fires rubber bullets towards anti-government protesters. AP

Civil defence workers treat injured protesters who were beaten by riot police. AP

Riot policemen run after anti-government protesters trying to enter the parliament square. AP

An anti-government protester holds stones, as he flashes victory signs during a protest near the parliament square. AP

Lebanese demonstrators hurl rocks at riot police during clashes in the capital Beirut on December 14, 2019. AFP

Lebanese riot police prepare to fire teargas canisters during clashes with anti-government demonstrators in the capital Beirut on December 14, 2019. AFP

Riot police detain an anti-government demonstrator during clashes in the capital Beirut on December 14, 2019. AFP

Lebanese demonstrators hurl tear-gas canisters back at riot police during clashes in the capital Beirut on December 14, 2019. AFP

Lebanese demonstrators hurl tear-gas canisters back at riot police during clashes in the capital Beirut on December 14, 2019. AFP

Lebanese demonstrators hurl tear-gas canisters back at riot police during clashes in the capital Beirut on December 14, 2019. AFP

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Amnesty International's Diala Haidar decried the "excessive use of force" in response to "overwhelmingly peaceful protest".

"The intention was clearly to prevent protesters gathering," she said, adding that masked men in civilian clothes joined security forces in "violently attacking protesters".

The clashes lasted until the early hours of Sunday, with demonstrators chanting slogans against the outgoing Mr Hariri and Mr Berri.

The names of various potential candidates to replace Mr Hariri have been circulated in recent weeks but powerful political parties in the multi-confessional country have failed to agree on a new premier. Each candidate put forward has also ruled themselves out after angry reactions from the street who refuse another political appointee.

Last Sunday the Sunni Muslim establishment threw its support behind Mr Hariri returning, further angering protesters.

Parliamentary consultations are due to begin Monday but both the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement – the party founded by the president – have both suggested they will not cast a vote. This could derail the process if two of the largest Christian parties abstain as critics can then argue that the new candidate to head government does not have cross-confessional support.

The UN insisted on the importance of the talks, with its Lebanon coordinator Jan Kubis urging politicians to "act responsibly".

"Tomorrow is the moment of truth. Either politicians will show at this critical moment of deep complex crisis they understand the needs of #Lebanon and its people and help steer a peaceful way forward, or that they remain captive of their traditional habits and attitudes," Mr Kubis tweeted.

Sunday's demonstration in Beirut had begun peacefully with protesters waving Lebanese flags and chanting "Hariri will not return".

"Change needs time and patience and we will not stop until we achieve our goals and remove this regime completely," said 23-year-old protester Carla.

"We don't want Hariri because he is a partner in corruption", she added.

"I am opposed to Hariri returning as head of the government and I don't understand why they can't find anyone else," said Nour, a pharmacist.

"There are many competent people... who are independent," she added.

The head of the Internal Security Forces, Brigadier Imad Othman, spoke to protesters in Beirut Sunday, urging them to remain peaceful and let security forces carry out their duties unhindered.

The process of forming a government will take place as Lebanon's debt-burdened economy has been sliding towards collapse.

The country is facing a dollar liquidity crisis, with banks limiting the withdrawal and transfer of the greenback, which has been selling for more than 2,000 Lebanese pounds on the parallel market for the first time since it was officially pegged at 1,507 in 1997.

The international community has urged a new cabinet to be formed swiftly to implement key economic reforms and unlock international aid.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Sunday urged Lebanese leaders to push to resolve the crisis paralysing the country, warning of a "dramatic situation". – additional reporting by AFP

Updated: December 16, 2019 12:12 PM

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