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Lebanon protesters defiant despite Hezbollah attack

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Beirut (AFP)

Security forces cleared road blocks across Lebanon Monday, facing off against protesters who took to the streets from the early morning despite being attacked overnight by Hezbollah and Amal supporters.

Demonstrators demanding a complete government overhaul have stayed mobilised since protests began on October 17, but a bitterly divided political class has yet to find a way out of the crisis.

Frustrated by the stalemate, protesters had called for road blocks and a general strike on Monday, but an attack by Hezbollah and Amal supporters on Sunday night weakened the turnout.

Political parties "are trying to instill fear in us as a people, so we don't progress and stay at home," said Dany Ayyash, 21, who was blocking a key road in Beirut's Hamra district early Monday.

"This is what happened today. There was supposed to be a general strike and yet the people are still at home sleeping."

At around midnight on Sunday, Hezbollah and Amal supporters attacked protesters at a flyover near the capital's main protest camp.

Brandishing party flags, they hurled stones at peaceful demonstrators and taunted them with insults as riot police deployed to contain the violence.

The attackers also ravaged a nearby encampment, tearing down tents and damaging storefronts in their most serious assault on the protesters so far.

At least 10 demonstrators were wounded, civil defence said, without specifying the extent of their injuries.

- Tense aftermath -

On Monday morning, scattered stones, shattered glass and the mangled remains of tents littered the ground in the main protest camp.

Around the square, car windows had been smashed with rocks.

But the demonstrators said they would not cave in.

"The attack gave us all -- at least the ones here right now -- a sense of determination," Ayyash said.

Nearby, security forces deployed along the road after shoving aside demonstrators who had been sitting on the ground.

Salim Mourad, a 31-year-old protester, showed AFP his torn shirt collar, saying riot police dragged him by his shirt.

"We don't want violence," he said.

Security forces also deployed across main arteries in north and east Lebanon Monday, removing metal barricades and dirt barricades raised by demonstrators earlier.

The army said it arrested nine people north of Beirut at dawn after they tried to block roads using burning petrol and shattered glass.

It also arrested four other "rioters", releasing three shortly afterwards.

The security forces have come under fresh criticism following Sunday's attack, with protesters accusing them of being lax with Hezbollah and Amal supporters, most of whom were allowed to walk away.

"The thugs throw stones and insult security forces but they don't confront them," said Elie, 24, who was among the protesters attacked.

"They don't arrest them the way they arrest us."

Such criticism prompted Interior Minister Raya al-Hasan on Monday to respond by saying the army and police remain the only "guarantors of the country's stability".

- Political paralysis -

Political leaders have failed to select a new government nearly one month since Prime Minister Saad Hariri's cabinet resigned, bowing to popular pressure.

President Michel Aoun, whose powers include initiating parliamentary consultations to appoint a new premier, said he was open to a government that would include technocrats and representatives of the popular movement -- both key demands of the protesters.

But demonstrators say they reject any government that would also include representatives of established parties.

The United States, France, the World Bank and credit rating agencies have all urged officials to accelerate cabinet formation, warning of a deteriorating economic and political crisis.

In the latest diplomatic push, senior British foreign office official Richard Moore was in Lebanon on Monday.

He would "underline the urgent need to form a government" during meetings with the president, prime minister, foreign minister, the speaker and the army chief, a British embassy statement said.

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