Lebanese Police Fire Rubber Bullets Near Anti-government Protest Camp in Beirut

Clashes began when masked men pelted security forces and threw firecrackers. Earlier, Hezbollah supporters attacked the central protest camp

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Anti-government protesters run away as the riot police fired tear gas against them during a protest in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019.
Anti-government protesters run away as the riot police fired tear gas against them during a protest in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, December 14, 2019. Credit: Hussein Malla,AP

Security forces fired rubber bullets and tear gas while clashing with anti-government protesters and with men who tried to attack the protest camp in Beirut on Saturday, setting off street confrontations that lasted for hours.

The violence was some of the worst in the capital since demonstrations began two months ago.

The trouble started when dozens of men, some wearing masks, pelted security forces with stones and threw firecrackers at them on one edge of the protest camp. As clashes continued, riot police fired intense volleys of tear gas, some of the heaviest in two months.

The initially limited confrontation at one edge of the protest camp spread into protracted street clashes that drew in anti-government protesters. For first time, anti-riot police fired rubber bullets at protesters, whom they chased away from central Beirut.

It was not clear what caused the harsh crackdown meted out against the anti-government protesters following the earlier clashes with those who attacked the protest camp.

A supporter of Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah and Amal groups gestures towards riot police during clashess in Beirut, December 14, 2019.Credit: AFP

The tension came only two days before the president meets with parliamentary blocs to name a prime minister. Earlier consultations were postponed amid the failure of rival political groups to agree on a new head of government.

Protesters have been calling for a new government unaffiliated with establishment political parties. The government headed by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned Oct. 29, two weeks after the nationwide protests began.

The Red Cross and the Lebanese Civil Defense said at least 46 people were injured and transported to hospitals Saturday. It was not clear what the injuries were.

Local TV station LBC showed dozens chanting against the security forces, accusing them of excessive force. Some chanted against Hariri returning as prime minister. He is emerging as the favorite candidate despite all the political bickering.

The violence Saturday started when young men attacked the epicenter of anti-government protests. The attackers chanted “Shiite, Shiite” and approached the protest camp in central Beirut from a neighborhood known as a stronghold for supporters of the Shiite Amal and Hezbollah groups.

It was the second time this week that pro-Hezbollah and Amal supporters tried to attack the protest camp, angered by demonstrators' criticism of their leaders.

Later Saturday, hundreds of anti-government protesters, including women, gathered outside parliament, also in central Beirut, and several people attacked the rally, prompting security forces to fire tear gas to push them back.

It wasn't clear who the attackers were but the parliament speaker is the head of the Shiite Amal group. The attack took place only a few meters (yards) from the epicenter of the protests, and the anti-government demonstrators were dispersed to side streets as tear gas filled the area. The attackers once again pelted security with stones. Dozens of protesters had traveled to Beirut from the northern city of Tripoli to take part in the parliament rally.

The clashes spread to streets surrounding the protest camp, engulfing the area with smoke from the tear gas. Security forces chased protesters around central Beirut, some firing rubber bullets and several volleys of tear gas from armored vehicles with multiple launchers.

The National News Agency reported that some shop windows in the commercial part of central Beirut were smashed by vandals. An Associated Press reporter saw one security member injured in an eye by a stone thrown by a protester.

Recently, the anti-government protesters accused activists who organize discussions under the name “the Hub” of hosting critics of Hezbollah and calling for normalization with Israel. Earlier this week, some lobbed firecrackers and burned a tent in the protest camp hosting discussions. On Saturday, critics of the attack organized a rally in support of the Hub, but canceled it shortly before the attempted attack on the protest camp.

The attackers Saturday outside the protest camp threw large firecrackers at security forces, who responded with tear gas, engulfing the area with a thick cloud of smoke. The National News Agency reported one security member was injured.

A preacher from the neighborhood mosque appealed to the men who attempted the attack to retreat. LBC said officials from Hezbollah and Amal arrived on the scene to contain the situation. A tense calm ensued amid a tighter deployment of security.