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Lebanon president to chair crisis talks over weekend violence

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Beirut (AFP)

Lebanon's under-fire president is set to meet Monday with top security officials to discuss rare violence over the weekend that left hundreds wounded in the protest-hit country.

For two nights in a row, demonstrators angered at delays in forming a government have lobbed stones, firecrackers and street signs at riot police, who fired tear gas and rubber bullets to clear a flashpoint road leading to parliament.

Early Monday afternoon, Michel Aoun will be joined by the caretaker ministers of the interior and defence as well as the chiefs of the military and security agencies to discuss the crisis, his office said after the most violent weekend in three months of protests.

The meeting will touch on "security developments" in a country rocked since October 17 by unprecedented protests against a political class deemed incompetent, corrupt and responsible for an ever-deepening economic crisis.

It will also address "measures that need to be taken to preserve peace and stability," the state-run National News agency (NNA) reported.

The meeting comes after a weekend that saw more than 540 wounded, including protesters and security forces, according to a toll compiled by AFP from figures provided by the Red Cross and Civil Defence.

That figure included people who suffered "breathing difficulties" or "light injuries", civil defence said.

- 'Brutal force' -

Lawyers and rights groups have condemned "excessive" and "brutal" use of force by security forces, who they said hit protesters on the head, face and genitals.

Human Rights Watch accused riot police of "launching tear gas canisters at protesters' heads, firing rubber bullets in their eyes and attacking people at hospitals and a mosque".

The violence also drew condemnation from the United Nations, which called the crackdown "unacceptable."

A 22-year-old protester, who asked not to be named for security reasons, said he was severely beaten by security forces until he was bleeding in the head.

"Four of them were beating me with batons," said the man, who has been in the hospital since Saturday.

"Then they dragged me on the ground before they started kicking me," he told AFP.

"One of them slammed the base of a tear gas launcher against my mouth, another jabbed my face."

Security forces, for their part, have urged demonstrators to abstain from assaulting riot police and damaging property.

- 'Political manipulators' -

The United Nations' envoy to Lebanon pinned the blame for the violence on politicians.

"Anger of the people is understandable, but it is different from vandalism of political manipulators, that must be stopped," Jan Kubis wrote on Twitter on Saturday.

Protesters had called for a week of "anger" over the political leadership's failure to form a new government even as the debt-ridden country sinks deeper into a financial crisis.

Lebanon has been without a government since outgoing prime minister Saad Hariri resigned on October 29 in the face of popular pressure.

Political factions agreed on December 19 to appoint former education minister Hassan Diab as the new premier but have since squabbled over ministerial posts and portfolios.

Protesters have demanded a new government be comprised solely of independent experts, excluding all established political parties -- a demand analysts say is a tall order.

The political impasse is worsening an already-dire economic crisis that the World Bank says may see the number of people living in poverty climb from a third to half the population.

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