Supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal Movement groups, background, fire firecrackers against the riot policemen, foreground, as they try to attack the anti-government protesters squares, in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019. Lebanon has been facing its worst economic crisis in decades, amid nationwide protests that began on Oct 17 against the ruling political class which demonstrators accuse of mismanagement and corruption. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Protracted street clashes engulf Beirut near protest camp

December 14, 2019 - 3:37 pm

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese security forces fired tear gas and clashed with men who tried to attack the anti-government protest camp in Beirut on Saturday, setting off street confrontations that lasted for hours. The clashes marked some of the worst in the capital since demonstrations began two months ago.

The clashes 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.

The security forces fired tear gas to keep the men away, but clashes continued. Riot police fired intense volleys of tear gas, some of the heaviest in two months. What started as a limited confrontation at one edge of the protest camp turned into protracted street clashes that also involved anti-government protesters.

The rise in tensions comes as politicians have failed to agree on forming a new government. It comes only two days away from consultations between the president and parliamentary blocs to name a prime minister.

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.

Hundreds of protesters returned to the epicenter of the protests after hours of clashes with security forces. 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 on 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 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-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.

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. Local TV station 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.

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