Protesters have poured on to the streets of the Lebanese capital to decry the collapse of the economy, as clashes erupted between supporters and opponents of the Iran-backed Shia group Hezbollah.
Hundreds filled the streets in and around the protest hub of Martyrs Square in the centre of Beirut on Saturday, blaming a lack of government reforms for the economic crisis.
Debt-burdened Lebanon is grappling with its worst economic turmoil since the 1975-1990 civil war, now compounded by a lockdown to stop the spread of 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.
But Saturday’s protest turned violent as supporters of Hezbollah clashed with some demonstrators who were demanding that the Iran-backed Shia group disarm.
Hezbollah is the only group to have kept its weapons since the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990 and this has deeply divided Lebanon along political lines.
“No to Hezbollah, no to its weapons,” said a sign held up by Sana, a female protester from Nabatiyeh, a city in southern Lebanese, a Hezbollah stronghold.
“Weapons should be only in the hands of the army,” said the 57-year-old.
Supporters and opponents of Hebzollah threw stones at each other prompting the army to intervene by forming a human chain to separate them, an AFP photographer said.
Supporters of Hezbollah, which is also represented in the government and parliament, chanted: “Shiite, Shiite.”
Security forces also fired teargas near a street leading into the parliament building behind Martyrs Square, after some demonstrators pelted them with stones and ransacked shops in the area.
The Lebanese Red Cross said on Twitter 37 people were wounded in Saturday’s violence, most of them treated at the scene.
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 protests 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 combating corruption.
But many Lebanese said it has failed to find solutions to the country’s manifold problems.
More than 35% of Lebanese are unemployed, while poverty has soared to engulf more than 45% 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% of its GDP. The country defaulted on its debt 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 in an attempt to unlock billions of dollars in aid.