BEIRUT: Violent clashes between supporters of Iran-backed Hezbollah and rival protesters left more than 35 people injured as anti-government demonstrations returned to Lebanon’s capital on Saturday.
Hundreds of protesters filled the streets around Martyrs Square, blaming a lack of reforms for the country’s worst economic turmoil in decades amid rising unemployment worsened by a lockdown to stop the spread of coronavirus.
But the protest turned violent as supporters of Hezbollah clashed with demonstrators demanding that the Tehran-backed Shiite group disarm.
Protesters threw stones and chanted sectarian insults as troops formed a human chain to keep the rival groups apart.
“No to Hezbollah, no to its weapons,” said a sign held up by a female protester.
Panic erupted after troops used gunfire to halt the confrontation.
The Lebanese Red Cross said that 35 people were hurt in clashes, with many treated at the scene.
Protesters came from around Lebanon to join renewed demonstrations in the capital, with many waving flags and others carrying banners demanding Hezbollah disarm.
One protester told Arab News: “We are rebels and free to raise demands of our choice, whether it is related to the economy or to disarming Hezbollah.”
Another said: “I am from Akkar. The government has done nothing. Hundreds of people have lost their jobs, and I know families that have nothing to eat.”
A third said that Arab and foreign countries had broken ties with Lebanon because of Hezbollah.
“No one wants to help us out of our financial crisis. That is why we want Hezbollah to disarm,” he said.
Interior Minister Mohamed Fahmy and Defense Minister Zeina Akar followed security operations in Martyrs Square from an operation room in Emile Helou police station.
Fahmy warned protesters against attacking public or private property, saying that security forces ” will intervene the moment riots occur.”
However MP Samy Gemayel, head of the Phalanges party, accused authorities of “trying to cause discord among protesters, labeling them traitors, and spreading rumors to intimidate them.”
The Phalanges Party was among parties calling for early parliamentary elections during the protests.
“The mood of the people has changed, and the goal of the political authority is to cause divisions in order to postpone the next elections,” Gemayel said.
Former justice minister Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi, whose supporters traveled from Tripoli to join the protests, accused Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah of being “an Iranian agent.”
He said: “The revolution rejuvenates itself for a new start, and differences among protesters is a healthy phenomenon. No one dares to intimidate us by threatening to put one segment of society against the other.”
Rifi said that Hezbollah’s illegal arms supply was a threat to “Lebanese sovereignty and national unity.”
“We are partners in one country and we should establish a sovereign state, not a state within the state. You have a regional power that supplies weapons to you, but another regional power could supply weapons to another party, which would lead to the destruction of the country,” he said.