BEIRUT (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 clashes continued into the early morning Sunday as riot police lobbed tear gas and used water cannons to disperse protesters who pelted them with stones.
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 focused on anti-government protesters. For first time in Beirut, anti-riot police fired rubber bullets at protesters, whom they chased away from downtown.
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.
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.
Local TV station LBC showed dozens chanting against the security forces, accusing them of excessive force. Some chanted against Hariri, who is emerging as the favorite candidate despite all the political bickering.
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.
The violence Saturday started when young men attacked the epicenter of anti-government protests. The attackers chanted â€œShiite, Shiiteâ€ 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.
The violence took a different turn later Saturday when hundreds of anti-government protesters, including women, gathered outside parliament, also in central Beirut. Chaos started when several people attacked the anti-government rally. Riot police pushed back to disperse the crowd, firing tear gas and chasing both crowds away from the area.
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. One officer was injured in the eye when a protester hit him with a stone, according to an Associated Press reporter. Early Sunday, nearly a dozen riot police hovered over two protesters, beating them with batons, according to an AP reporter on the scene. The two were later taken away for medical attention.
Tension has also been building up in the protest camp. Some accused activists who organize discussions in the protest camp under the name â€œthe Hubâ€ of hosting critics of Hezbollah and calling for normalization with Israel. The tent was attacked earlier in the week with firecrackers, burning it down. On Saturday, a rally to support the Hub was cancelled shortly before the attempted attack on the protest camp.
The attackers Saturday outside the protest camp threw large firecrackers at security forces, injuring one security member, according to the National News Agency reported one security member was injured.