BEIRUT, Lebanon — Clashes between police and Lebanese protesters wounded more than 220 people on both sides Saturday in the highest such tally in three months of anti-establishment demonstrations.
Thick white smoke covered the downtown Beirut area near Parliament as police and protesters engaged in confrontations that saw groups of young men hurl stones and firecrackers at police who responded with water cannons and tear gas. Some protesters were seen vomiting on the street from inhaling the gas.
The sound of ambulance sirens rang out across Beirut as the Red Cross reported 80 wounded had been taken to hospitals and 140 more were treated on site.
The protest movement rocking Lebanon since October 17 revived this week as a deepening economic crisis increases pressure to form a new government.
No progress appears to have been made towards finalizing the cabinet, which protesters demand be comprised of independent experts and exclude all established political parties.
Lebanon has witnessed three months of protests against the political elite who have ruled the country since the end of the 1975-90 civil war. The protesters blame politicians for widespread corruption and mismanagement in a country that has accumulated one of the largest debt ratios in the world.
The protesters had called for a demonstration Saturday afternoon with the theme “we will not pay the price” in reference to debt that stands at about $87 billion, or more than 150% of GDP.
After several hours of clashes, the violence died down as demonstrators dispersed. Several were arrested, local media said.
The violence began after dozens of protesters — some concealing their faces in scarves — threw rocks and large plant pots at police guarding the road leading up to parliament.
Others charged police lines with traffic signs and metal barriers.
Security forces behind the barricades responded with water cannon and tear gas to disperse the crowds.
As clashes continued, some two dozen men believed to be parliament guards attacked the protesters’ tents in Martyrs Square, setting them on fire. A gas cylinder inside one of the tents blew up. The fire spread quickly and charred a nearby shop.
The bells of nearby St. George Cathedral began to toll in an apparent call for calm, while loudspeakers at the adjacent blue-domed Muhammad Al-Amin mosque called for night prayers.
Later in the evening, hundreds of protesters chanting “Revolution” chased a contingent of riot police near the entrance of the mosque, forcing them to withdraw. Inside the mosque, several men were treated for gas inhalation and some families were said to be hiding inside.
“We call on the security forces to be merciful with women and children inside the mosque,” a statement blared through the mosque’s loudspeakers.
President Michel Aoun called on security forces to protect peaceful protesters and work on restoring clam in downtown Beirut and to protect public and private propery. He asked the ministers of defense and interior and heads of security agencies to act.
“The confrontations, fires and acts of sabotage in central Beirut are crazy, suspicious and rejected. They threaten civil peace and warn of grave consequences,” tweeted outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who lives nearby. He called those behind the riots “outlaws” and called on police and armed forces to protect Beirut.
The National News Agency said demonstrators also vandalized bank facades in central Beirut.
“A direct and violent confrontation is taking place with anti-riot police at one of the entrances to parliament,” the Internal Security Forces said earlier on Twitter.
“We ask peaceful protesters to keep away from the site of the rioting for their safety.”
They published photos of several wounded policemen and a video showing pillars stripped of their tiles, reportedly to be thrown at security forces.
A 23-year-old woman named Maya said she was protesting because politicians seemed to be ignoring demands for an overhaul of the old political class.
“I’m here because after more than 90 days in the streets, they’re still squabbling over their shares in government… It’s as if they didn’t see our movement,” she told AFP.
“Popular anger is the solution,” she said.
Forming a cabinet is an often convoluted process in Lebanon, where a complex system seeks to maintain balance between the country’s many political parties and religious confessions.
But protesters say they want to scrap the old system, and demand a new government of impartial technocrats to address mounting economic woes, including a severe liquidity crisis.
This week public anger has been directed at banks, with branches in the capital’s Hamra district vandalized following widely unpopular limits on withdrawals and transfers.
Panic and anger have gripped the public as their local currency, pegged to the dollar for more than two decades, plummeted. The Lebanese pound lost more than 60% of its value in recent weeks on the black market. The economy has seen no growth and foreign inflows dried up in the already heavily indebted country that relies on imports for most of its basic goods.
Dozens were detained for several nights after clashes on Tuesday and Wednesday, before being released.
Human rights groups condemned the arrests and what they described as unacceptable violence against largely peaceful protesters.
Hariri and his government stepped down under pressure from the street on October 29, but they have remained in a caretaker capacity until a new cabinet is formed.
Political factions that agreed on December 19 to appoint former education minister and professor Hassan Diab as the new premier are now disagreeing over proposed ministers.
Diab had been expected to announce an 18-member Cabinet on Friday, but last minute disputes among political factions scuttled his latest attempt.
The World Bank has warned that the poverty rate in Lebanon could rise from a third to half of the population if the political crisis is not solved soon.