Police fire into air at Beirut protest as banks smashed

Protesters have vowed a 'week of wrath' as they demand an end to a months-long political crisis

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Lebanese police used live fire to disperse protesters in west Beirut’s Hamra area on Tuesday night and fired dozens of rounds of teargas, filling the narrow streets with choking fumes as rioters smashed banks and threw rocks at authorities.

Lebanese demonstrators have taken to the streets again this week to demand an end to a months-long political vacuum, starting what protesters have billed a "week of wrath".

Although protests had declined in size in recent weeks, demonstrations have been ongoing since mid-October, increasingly targeting banks and state institutions blamed for driving Lebanon towards collapse.

Protesters resumed blocking major highways on Tuesday with burning tyres before anti-riot police armed with batons and shields charged hundreds of demonstrators outside the Lebanese Central Bank.

One witness said that a policeman fired warning shots to disperse protesters attacking him with stones. This was the first time that security forces used live ammunition to counter protesters in Beirut, said Lebanon Human Rights Watch Researcher Aya Majzoub.

On Twitter, the security forces denounced "attacks" led by "rioters" who had thrown stones and firecrackers at police.

The Internal Security Forces confirmed the 47 of its personnel had been wounded in the uproar, and their officers had arrested 59 suspects.

Local television broadcast images of masked men smashing bank windows and reported that dozens of police officers and protesters were hurt in the clashes. Activists said that several arrests were made.

The unprecedented cross-sectarian movement has been fuelled by a crippling economic crisis, the worst since Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

The debt-burdened nation has been without a government since Saad Hariri resigned as prime minister on October 29.

"Rebel, Beirut," dozens of protesters chanted as they marched to the sound of drums towards the home of premier-designate Hassan Diab, who has struggled to form a Cabinet since he was named on December 19.

Numbers grew shortly before the march left the city centre with the arrival of dozens of young men from the eastern region of the Bekaa chanting “rebels, free people, we will continue our journey” as they pumped their fists into the air.

“Politicians continue bickering over who gets what along the same old sectarian lines while we live in total anarchy,” said a woman who asked to remain anonymous.

Protesters hurled insults at banks as they marched for a little over an hour through Beirut. The liquidity crisis has pushed banks to cap cash withdrawals to just a few hundred dollars a week in recent months.

Mr Diab’s street was blocked by dozens of riot police to stop protesters from approaching his building. One man climbed an electricity poll to wave a Lebanese flag while others beamed green lasers at Mr Diab’s apartment.

Some protesters said they would give Mr Diab 48 hours to form a government, while others said they were fed up.

“Hassan Diab has given no results. If they do not respect people’s rights it will be violent,” said Chadi, a student, as people chanted “the revolution will not be peaceful”.

All day, protesters burnt tyres and rubbish at a Beirut highway called The Ring, where hundreds gathered, causing massive traffic jams. “We blocked roads at first singing and dancing, and we got no results. Now we are escalating,” said 20-year-old Wissam Nasrallah, fanning the flames.

Protesters urged politicians to swiftly form a cabinet of experts to respond to their demands.

“Politicians are not taking into consideration what the Lebanese people are saying,” said Tasnim, a doctor in a private hospital.

Like many Lebanese, her salary was cut by half recently. She said that it is now worth only $400 because of the devaluation of the Lebanese pound. Though it is officially pegged at 1,507 Lebanese lira to the dollar, its value on the black market has slipped to well over 2,000, making goods more expensive.

“Medical supplies are running out and it’s going to be a disaster,” she warned. Imported goods are running out as businessmen cannot secure enough dollars anymore for payment abroad.

In parallel, public infrastructure, which is already strained, is crumbling. 51-year old Rabiha teared up as she recounted her sister’s experience in a public hospital.

“My sister died of cancer eight months ago. They did not even have a blanket to cover her when she was cold.”

In a televised speech, President Michel Aoun acknowledged the delay in agreeing on a new Cabinet line-up but appealed for more time to find suitable candidates.

"The formation of this government demands choosing competent individuals who deserve the trust of the people and parliament, which takes time," he told foreign envoys.

Still acting as the caretaker prime minister, Mr Hariri pushed back at calls by his outgoing administration to meet to discuss urgent matters saying that what was needed was an agreement on a new government.

UN Special Co-ordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis accused Lebanese politicians of watching on as the economy collapses and the central bank tries to manage the crisis alone.
Mr Kubis said that central bank governor Riad Salameh had requested extraordinary powers to manage the economy – an apparent reference to his request for extra authorities to regulate controls being implemented by commercial banks.
"Lebanon is truly unique – the [central bank] BDL Governor requesting extraordinary powers to at least somehow manage the economy while those responsible watch it collapsing. Incredible," Mr Kubis wrote in a Twitter post.

There were also demonstrations Tuesday in the provinces, including in the second city of Tripoli in the north and the south-east town of Hasbayya, Lebanese television channels showed.

The protests had dwindled to symbolic gatherings in recent weeks after Mr Diab, a professor and former education minister, was nominated last month.

But Lebanese have returned to the streets since Saturday, when hundreds gathered across the country to vent their frustration.

The protesters are demanding a new government made up solely of independent technocrats, but analysts warn this may be a tall order in a country ruled by a sectarian power-sharing system since the end of the civil war.

The World Bank has warned of a recession that may see the proportion of people living in poverty climb from a third to half the population.

Even before the protests began, economic growth in Lebanon had slowed sharply in the face of repeated political deadlocks in recent years, compounded by the war in neighbouring Syria.