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Lebanon protesters try to block confidence vote

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Beirut (AFP)

Protesters in Beirut tried to stop a confidence vote in parliament Tuesday on a new government they say fails to address their demands and cannot rescue Lebanon's ailing economy.

Security forces used tear gas and water cannon to break up groups of demonstrators who hurled rocks over the blast walls erected around parliament.

The Red Cross reported 24 people had been hospitalised and 147 treated at the scene, even as the army called for the protests to remain peaceful.

Before the session started, protesters mobbed the tinted-glass vehicles of lawmakers and lobbed water bottles at them in a bid to stop them reaching parliament for the vote.

Demonstrators draped in Lebanese flags and chanting "no confidence" had started gathering before dawn at various points around the capital in a bid to dodge police checkpoints.

Some lawmakers spent the night in parliament to thwart protesters who have successfully prevented several sessions since they launched their campaign in October last year.

"I'm here to say 'no confidence' in the government because the way it was formed shows that it cannot be trusted," said one protester who gave her name as Carole.

Hassan Diab, a little-known academic and former education minister, was tasked with forming a government in December after Saad Hariri was forced to resign from his post as prime minister by pressure from the street.

The unprecedented cross-sectarian protest movement has pushed for the wholesale removal of a hereditary political elite seen as corrupt and incompetent.

- 'People have no confidence' -

While Diab vowed to carry the hopes of the protesters, portfolios in his government were shared out through the same partisan and sectarian gamesmanship that has been the trademark of Lebanon's political class for decades.

Christopher, 26, watched from a distance as water cannon projected cold jets at protesters trying to scale the perimeter blast wall.

"We are here to reject Diab's government and to say that the Lebanese people have no confidence in it -- even if lawmakers vote to support it," he said.

He said that, even if the new ministers appeared to be qualified, they still depended on "the parties that destroyed the country".

Demonstrators had travelled to Beirut from as far as Sidon, Tripoli and Tyre.

If approved by parliament, the new government will face one of the worst crises in the county's recent history.

Besides the biggest popular challenge to the power-sharing system that emerged from the 1975-1990 civil war, the country faces its worst economic crisis in decades.

Lebanon is on the brink of defaulting on its debt and the impact is being felt by all social classes, with tough restrictions on cash withdrawals and a de-facto devaluation of the national currency.

One placard seen at Tuesday's protest quipped: "Of course we are confident –- that they will help the banks to the detriment of the people."

The World Bank has warned that if no solution is found swiftly to the crisis, the poverty rate may shoot up from a third to half of the population.

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