Beirut (AFP) - Protesters poured into the streets of the Lebanese capital Saturday to decry the collapse of the economy, as clashes erupted between supporters and opponents of the Iran-backed Shiite group Hezbollah.
Hundreds filled the streets in and around the protest hub of Martyrs Square in the centre of Beirut, with skirmishes also between protesters and security forces, who fired tear gas.
Forty-eight were wounded in the violence, 11 of whom were hospitalised, while the rest were treated at the scene, the Lebanese Red Cross said.
It was the first major anti-government rally attracting demonstrators from across the country since authorities relaxed a lockdown imposed in mid-March to fight the spread of the coronavirus.
"We came on the streets to demand our rights, call for medical care, education, jobs and the basic rights that human beings need to stay alive," said 21-year-old student Christina.
Many protesters wore face-masks as part of hygiene measures imposed to fight the pandemic, which has severely exacerbated an economic crisis, the worst since the debt-burdened country's 1975-1990 civil war.
But Saturday's protest turned violent as supporters of Hezbollah clashed with some demonstrators calling on the group to disarm.
Hezbollah is the only group to have kept its weapons since the end of the Lebanese civil war, deeply dividing Lebanon along political lines.
- Exchange of fire -
"Weapons should be only in the hands of the army," said Sana, a 57-year-old female protester from Nabatiyeh, a city in southern Lebanon, a Hezbollah stronghold.
Soldiers formed a human chain separating the two sides after supporters and opponents of Hezbollah threw stones at each other, an AFP photographer said.
Supporters of Hezbollah, which is also represented in the government and parliament, chanted: "Shiite, Shiite."
On Saturday evening, there was an exchange of gunfire between residents of a Sunni district, a stronghold of the former prime minister Saad Hariri, and a nearby Shiite neighbourhood, a stronghold of the Amal party, a security source said.
Soldiers moved in to restore order, said the state-run news agency ANI.
There were clashes too in the northern city of Tripoli, an AFP correspondent there reported.
Security forces fired tear gas near a street leading into the parliament building behind Martyrs Square, after some demonstrators pelted them with stones and ransacked shops.
Some protesters set fire to garbage bins as riot police advanced towards them.
- 'Eliminate corruption' -
Lebanon has been rocked by a series of political crises in recent years, before an economic crunch helped trigger unprecedented cross-sectarian mass protests in October.
The demonstrations forced the government to resign and a new one headed by Prime Minister Hassan Diab was approved by parliament in February, tasked with launching reforms and combatting corruption.
But many Lebanese say the new administration has failed to find solutions to the country's manifold problems, including a grinding recession and spiralling inflation.
The local currency has lost more than half of its value on the black market in recent months, falling from the official rate of 1,507 to more than 4,000 pounds to the dollar. Banks have gradually stopped all dollar withdrawals.
A sign held aloft by protesters on Saturday called for "a government that eliminates corruption, not one that protects corruption".
More than 35 percent of Lebanese are unemployed, while poverty has soared to engulf more than 45 percent of the population, according to official estimates.
Lebanon is also one of the world's most indebted countries, with a debt equivalent to more than 170 percent of its GDP. The country defaulted on its external borrowing for the first time in March.
Diab's government adopted an economic recovery plan in April and has begun negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, to try to unlock billions of dollars in aid.