Lebanon to release protesters detained after night of intense riots
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Lebanon to release protesters detained after night of intense riots

Prosecutors order 34 people released after worst night since demonstrations began, with nearly 400 injured

Lebanese police walk after dispersing a protest in Beirut, Lebanon, January 18, 2020. (AP/Hassan Ammar)
Lebanese police walk after dispersing a protest in Beirut, Lebanon, January 18, 2020. (AP/Hassan Ammar)

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) — Lebanon’s public prosecutor ordered the release Sunday of 34 people detained the previous evening amid the worst day of violence since protests erupted three months ago, the National State News agency said.

The public prosecutor said those detained during the riots would be released except those with other pending cases. It was not clear how many would remain in detention, if any.

The clashes took place amid the backdrop of a rapidly worsening financial crisis and an ongoing impasse over the formation of a new government. The Cabinet headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned in late October.

Protesters have called for more rallies on Sunday.

Riot police fired volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets on Saturday to disperse thousands of protesters rallied outside the parliament and in downtown Beirut. The protesters, who came from the country’s north, east and the capital itself, lobbed flares at security forces, metal bars, stones and tree branches.

Civilian men believed to be the private unit of the parliament guards, burn the tents of the anti-government protesters, during ongoing protests against the political elites in Beirut, Lebanon, January 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

The pitched street battles lasted for nearly nine hours and were among the worst scenes of rioting since protests broke out in mid-October.

At least 377 people were injured in the clashes, according to the Red Cross and the Lebanese Civil Defense. More than 120 of those were treated in hospitals, as well as security force members. The clashes also took place in the courtyard and steps of a mosque downtown. The top Muslim Sunni Fatwa office called it “inappropriate” and said protesters had taken refuge inside the mosque and were taken care of.

Protesters smashed windows and the facade of the headquarters of the country’s Banking Association with metal bars. Security forces set fire to a few tents set up by protesters nearby.

Interior Minister Raya El Hassan said Saturday that security forces were ordered to protect peaceful protests. “But for the protests to turn into a blatant attack on the security forces and public and private properties, this is condemned and totally unacceptable,” she tweeted.

Anti-government protesters use a metal barrier to ram security forces taking cover during clashes in the central downtown district of the Lebanese capital Beirut near the parliament headquarters on January 18, 2020. (ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

However, Human Rights Watch described the security force response as “brutal” and called for an urgent end to a “culture of impunity” for police abuse.

“There was no justification for the brutal use of force unleashed by Lebanon’s riot police against largely peaceful demonstrators in downtown Beirut,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at HRW. “Riot police showed a blatant disregard for their human rights obligations, instead launching teargas canisters at protesters’ heads, firing rubber bullets in their eyes and attacking people at hospitals and a mosque.”

The protesters have rallied against the country’s political elite who have ruled Lebanon 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.

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.

Meanwhile, banks have imposed informal capital controls, limiting withdrawal of dollars and foreign transfers.

Prime Minister-designate Hassan Diab had been expected to announce an 18-member Cabinet on Friday, but last minute disputes among political factions scuttled his latest attempt.

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