Lebanon officials vow to deter 'infiltrator' attacks after weekend violence

Hashem Osseiran
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Clashes between Lebanese anti-government protesters and riot police wounded hundreds of people over the weekend

Clashes between Lebanese anti-government protesters and riot police wounded hundreds of people over the weekend (AFP Photo/PATRICK BAZ)

Beirut (AFP) - Officials in protest-hit Lebanon Monday vowed to take measures to deter attacks against security forces during crisis talks following rare violence over the weekend that left hundreds wounded.

Lebanon has been rocked by mostly peaceful anti-government rallies since October 17 but the protests turned violent over the weekend amid political stalemate and an ever deepening economic crisis.

On Saturday and Sunday night demonstrators, who had called for a "week of rage", lobbed stones, firecrackers and street signs at riot police, who fired tear gas and rubber bullets to clear a road leading to parliament.

The escalation saw more than 540 people wounded on the two sides and came as wrangling delayed the formation of a new government to replace that of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who quit last year in the face of street protests.

On Monday afternoon, President Michel Aoun presided over crisis talks on the violence between the caretaker interior and defence ministers as well as the chiefs of the military and security agencies.

Participants accused "infiltrators" of attacking security forces and vandalising property, and discussed security measures to "deter" further offences and protect peaceful protesters, a government source said after the meeting.

The source made the comments in a statement to media, but did not disclose what measures would be taken.

In a show of defiance, demonstrators who said they took part in the weekend protests responded online using the Arabic hashtag "The Infiltrator Is Me", disclosing their full personal details.

They also accused security forces of firing rubber bullets at the eyes of protesters in other Twitter posts, as rights groups and the UN criticised police over the crackdown.

- 'Brutal force' -

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 United Nations also condemned the use of force.

"Violence from protesters and vandalism are of course unacceptable," said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

But the vast majority of protesters are peaceful "and they need to be protected," he added.

France said it was concerned by the violence, and stressed the need for protesters to express themselves peacefully.

"The priority is that a new government puts together a credible set of reforms to meet Lebanese citizens' expectations," a French foreign ministry spokesperson said.

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 from 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."

- 'Cycle of collapse' -

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 prime minister 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.

"The ruling elite is going back to its traditional bickering over their shares in government" said Bachar el-Halabi a researcher at the American University of Beirut.

"This has laid the foundation for a more violent approach by initially peaceful protestors."

Hariri on Monday said that there was an "urgent need" for a government that could steer Lebanon out of its "cycle of collapse."

"The country is heading towards the unknown and the team responsible for forming a government is taking its time," he said on Twitter.

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.