BEIRUT, Lebanon — 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 violence Saturday started when young men from a neighborhood known as a stronghold for supporters of the Shiite Amal and Hezbollah groups attacked the epicenter of anti-government protests, chanting “Shiite, Shiite.”
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, clashes erupted at the entrance to the street leading to parliament, which was blocked by security forces. 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 Lebanese protests have been largely peaceful but clashes have become more frequent in recent weeks, with supporters of Hezbollah and Amal attacking protest camps in several cities amid counter-demonstrations.
Images broadcast by local TV channel LBC showed the anti-government protesters trying to break through metal police barricades, and officers firing tear gas and beating them.
The demonstrators overturned heavy flower pots and shouted slogans hostile to the security forces and parliament speaker Nabih Berri, the footage showed.
Clashes followed in Martyrs Square — the epicenter of protests since October — and on a bridge in the city center, according to an AFP photographer.
Security forces fired rubber bullets and several volleys of tear gas from armored vehicles with multiple launchers, while protesters threw stones.
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.
Protesters were injured by batons while others passed out due to the intensity of tear gas fumes, and members of the security forces were also wounded, the photographer said.
The Red Cross and the Lebanese Civil Defense said at least 46 people were injured and transported to hospitals Saturday.
The Lebanese Red Cross told AFP people had been treated for breathing difficulties and fainting, along with injuries caused by stones, noting that security personnel and civilians were among those treated.
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 October 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 returning as prime minister. He is emerging as the favorite candidate despite all the political bickering.
Recently, protesters have 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.
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.
Both Amal and Hezbollah are partners in Lebanon’s cross-sectarian government.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Friday warned that the formation of a new government could take time.
Nasrallah said he would support a coalition government with “the widest possible representation” that did not exclude any of the major parties, adding that it could even be headed by Hariri.
The names of various potential candidates have been circulated in recent weeks, but the Sunni Muslim establishment on Sunday threw their support behind Hariri returning.
The international community has urged a swift appointment of a cabinet to implement key economic reforms and unlock international aid.
Nasrallah on Friday also urged his supporters — and those of Amal — to stay calm, saying that the “anger” of some of his movement’s members had gone “out of control.”