Hundreds hurt as Lebanon protests turn violent


Beirut (AFP)

Almost 400 people were wounded during running battles between Lebanese anti-government protesters and security forces in Beirut Saturday, rescuers said, the heaviest toll since the demonstrations erupted three months ago.

More street rallies were expected later Sunday as part of the wave of popular protests that has demanded the wholesale ouster of the Lebanese political class, which the activists condemn as inept and corrupt.

At least 377 people were injured -- both protesters and members of the security forces -- according to a toll compiled by AFP from figures provided by the Red Cross and Civil Defence.

Protesters had called for a week of "anger" as an economic crisis deepened while efforts remained deadlocked to form a new government to replace a leadership that stepped down under street pressure late last year.

Saturday's clashes began after dozens of protesters, some concealing their faces with scarves, threw rocks, plant pots and other objects at anti-riot police guarding the road leading to parliament in downtown Beirut.

Others tried to breach barbed wire barricades to reach the legislature building or charged police lines using traffic signs as weapons.

The security forces responded with water cannon and tear gas to disperse the crowds.

An AFP photographer said security forces fired rubber bullets at the stone-throwing protesters as thick clouds of tear gas covered central Beirut.

Human Rights Watch denounced what it called "the brutal use of force unleashed by Lebanon's riot police against largely peaceful demonstrators".

"Riot police showed a blatant disregard for their human rights obligations, instead launching tear gas canisters at protesters' heads, firing rubber bullets in their eyes and attacking people at hospitals and a mosques," said the rights group's deputy Middle East director Michael Page.

He urged authorities to act quickly "to end this culture of impunity for police abuse"

- 'Infiltrators' -

Outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who stepped down on October 29 under pressure from the protesters, on Saturday condemned what he called a "suspicious and crazy scene" blaming "infiltrators" for the violence.

The Civil Defence said late Saturday 43 people were taken to hospital and that it had treated at the scene 114 others who were "slightly injured or suffered from breathing problems".

The Red Cross said it had rushed 80 people to city hospitals while 140, including both protesters and members of the security forces, were given first aid at the scene of the clashes.

The state-run National News Agency said around 30 people were detained following the violence but later released.

Meanwhile security forces said they had opened an investigation after a video shared online showed police beating up people believed to be protesters as they were brought to a Beirut police station.

The protest movement that has rocked Lebanon since October 17 is demanding that a new government be comprised of independent experts and exclude all established political parties.

The demonstrators have been denouncing rampant corruption in Lebanon and accuse authorities of being inefficient and motivated by personal and partisan gains.

Political factions agreed on December 19 to appoint former education minister Hassan Diab as the new premier but have since squabbled over proposed ministers.