BEIRUT, Dec 16 — Lebanese protesters clashed with police yesterday for the second consecutive night near parliament on the eve of much-delayed consultations to form a new cabinet needed to fix a deepening economic crisis.
The renewed clashes in Beirut came as Interior Minister Raya El-Hassan ordered security forces to open a “rapid and transparent” enquiry after dozens were wounded on Saturday night.
Undaunted by the violence, thousands of demonstrators flooded central Beirut yesterday ahead of the parliamentary consultations due to begin today to appoint a new premier after weeks of largely peaceful street protests forced the previous cabinet to quit.
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.
Clashes again erupted near parliament, with demonstrators throwing water bottles and firecrackers at the security forces who responded with tear gas and water canons, an AFP photographer said.
There were no immediate reports of casualties.
But the clashes threatened a repeat of scenes on Saturday evening that had seen dozens of people 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 from their ranks were hospitalised.
An AFP photographer saw men in plainclothes hitting protesters on Saturday, while anti-riot police fired rubber bullets at protesters throwing stones.
Hassan demanded the identification of those responsible for the most violent episode since the anti-government protests began in October.
‘Excessive use of force
She warned against “infiltrators” seeking to use protests to provoke “confrontations”.
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 outgoing prime minister Saad Hariri, who stepped down on October 29, and parliament’s veteran speaker Nabib Berri.
The names of various potential candidates to replace Hariri have been circulated in recent weeks but powerful political parties in the multi-confessional country have failed to agree on a new premier.
Last Sunday the Sunni Muslim establishment threw its support behind Hariri returning, further angering protesters.
Parliamentary consultations are due to begin today at 10:30am (0830 GMT). 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,” Kubis tweeted.
Yesterday’s demonstration in Beirut began 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 (official) 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 yesterday, 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 yesterday urged Lebanese leaders to push to resolve the crisis paralysing the country, warning of a “dramatic situation”. — AFP