Lebanon: two nights of clashes raise tensions in Beirut

Riot police confronted Amal supporters on Wednesday, a day after parliamentary police attacked protesters

TOPSHOT - Supporters of Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah and Amal groups clash with riot police as they were heading to the area where anti-government protests were taking place early on December 12, 2019 in central Beirut. / AFP / ANWAR AMRO
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Riot police in Beirut on Wednesday night fired tear gas at supporters of the Lebanese party Amal, Hezbollah’s ally, 57 days into nationwide anti-government demonstrations.

Videos on social media show riot police on a motorway in downtown Beirut launching heavy amounts of tear gas at dozens of young men, who are wearing helmets and throwing rocks and bottles at officers. Injured policemen are seen being carried away.

Local media reported the men came from the neighbourhood of Khandaq Al Ghamik, an Amal and Hezbollah stronghold close to the city centre.

Similar clashes have occurred in the area since protests began on October 17.

Anti-government protesters gathered earlier in the evening near Parliament to express their anger at being attacked on Tuesday night by members of the parliamentary police who they said were affiliated with Amal leader Nabih Berri, the Parliamentary Speaker.

The protesters chanted, “Where were you yesterday?” at riot police and called Mr Berri a thief and a thug, while also insulting other Lebanese politicians.

Protesters reject the political elite who have governed Lebanon since the end of the civil war in 1990, accusing them of being corrupt and responsible for the current financial and economic crisis.

Lebanon has been without a government since Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned on October 29.

On Tuesday evening, protesters drove in convoys through Beirut, stopping in front of the homes of prominent politicians such as former prime minister Najib Mikati and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt to chant and throw rubbish at their entrances.

They also targeted former public works ministers they blame for massive floods that hit Lebanon every year and brought the country to a standstill last week.

No violence was recorded until a convoy reached the neighbourhood of Verdun, about 500 metres from Mr Berri's residence, as it was driving towards the house of former public works minister and Amal member Ghazi Zeaiter.

Parliamentary police attacked drivers inside their cars and smashed their windows, injuring several people including local journalist Paula Naoufal, 24.

Her mouth still covered in blood, the reporter with the Lebanese daily Annahar posted an emotional video on social media describing the attack minutes after it happened.

Naoufal said she was hit in the face despite telling the police that she was a journalist.

"I honestly think that they did not care what I said," she told The National. "They would have hit me even if I told them I was just passing by."

Naoufal said the Red Cross ambulance that took her to hospital was also attacked by parliamentary police, who told it to leave.

On Wednesday afternoon, the parliamentary police said that protesters threw rubbish and empty bottles at officers, injuring one and causing “clashes”.

Witnesses speaking to local television, including Naoufal, denied that protesters provoked the police.

She said she believed that members of the force were Amal supporters.

“I went to their Facebook profiles and they all have Amal insignia, even though the police are not legally allowed to show their political opinions,” Naoufal said.

Ayman Raad, a lawyer who works closely with protesters, said the chain of command for the parliamentary police was “confusing”.

“Lawyers who have been working on this incident for the past 48 hours cannot find a legal text defining who oversees the parliamentary police," Mr Raad said.

"We know that the Internal Security Forces as well as the Lebanese army send men to protect Parliament, but whose orders they follow is not clear.

"It should not be the head of Parliament as he is a politician and should have no control over security forces.”

The ISF reports to Interior Minister Raya Al Hassan.

On Wednesday, Ms Al Hassan met the head of the ISF and the director of General Security to discuss “security developments” but she did not issue a statement, the state-run National News Agency reported.

Asked about a similar incident that occurred on October 29, she told CNN a few days later that while she condemned violence, “sometimes bad things happen”.

An Amal spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday morning.

Despite several attacks on protesters and riot police by Amal and Hezbollah supporters, none have been charged so far.