Violence returns to Beirut streets

Lebanon is experiencing its worst economic crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.
Lebanon is experiencing its worst economic crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.

Violence has erupted in Beirut between Muslim Sunni and Shiite followers, prompting the Lebanese army's decision to intervene to contain the situation and return calm to the streets.

Heavy gunfire was heard in Beirut's mainly Sunni Muslim neighbourhood late on Saturday of Tarik al-Jedideh area and videos of gunmen shooting in the air were circulating on social media.

The National News Agency said two people were wounded in Tarik al-Jedideh area.

Lebanese army troops were seen deploying in the areas that witnessed tension and some clashes.

Protesters blocked roads in Beirut's Corniche al-Mazraa and Qasqas areas, as well as in the cities of the southern port of Sidon and the northern porty cit Tripoli. Protesters also closed the coastal highway that links Beirut to the South.

Residents in the area of Corniche al-Mazraa said what sparked the violence were insults which were made against Prophet Mohammed's wife Aisha by young demonstrators.

Sunni and Shiite officials as well as parties issued statements calling for calm.

Dar al-Fatwa, the country's highest Sunni religious authority, called on all Muslims to stay away from falling into the trap of a sectarian strife.

"The cursing of Sayyida Aisha can only be from a person who is ignorant," Dar al-Fatwa said in a statement.

The Shiite Lebanese movement Hezbollah issued a statement warning of some people who "are trying to ignite a sectarain civil strife in the country."

Earlier, an anti-government rally in central Beirut turned violent as clashes erupted between the protesters and followers of Hezbollah.

A security official on the scene told dpa that some anti-government protesters were chanting anti-Hezbollah slogans when a group from the Hezbollah area of Handak al-Ghamik started throwing stones at them.

"Shiite! Shiite!" the Hezbollah followers chanted as they tried to break down a security barrier the army had set up to separate the two sides.

"No one is allowed to chant against Hezbollah," one Hezbollah follower told dpa.

The Lebanese Red Crescent said on Twitter that at least 48 people were wounded in the clashes in central Beirut. Eleven of them were transferred to hospitals, while the other 37 were treated at the site.

Meanwhile, anti-government protesters, mainly from the Sunni northern port city of Tripoli, headed towards the parliament, led by Shiite leader Nabih Berri, who is close to Hezbollah, and started throwing stones at the guards.

The anti-government protesters were seen smashing shop windows near the parliament, which is heavily guarded by police and cement blocks, prompting riot police to fire tear gas towards the angry protesters.

Lebanese anti-government demonstrators had gathered in the centre of Beirut to stage a major rally, in defiance of a coronavirus lockdown, to protest against worsening economic and social conditions in the country.

Wearing protective face masks decorated with the colours of the Lebanese flag, young and old converged in the vicinity of Martyrs' Square in Beirut. They chanted in unison: "We want a better life."

As demonstrators packed the square and the surrounding streets, security forces closed major roads leading to the area.

The rally was expected to be Lebanon's largest since the government enforced a lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus and banned public gatherings in March.

Saturday's protest organisers said their action was aimed at fighting rampant corruption in the country and to prod the government, installed earlier this year, to tackle the ailing economy.

In the run-up to the rally, some protesters took to social media to demand the disarming Hezbollah, which wields a powerful influence over Lebanon's politics.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab, whose government is mainly backed by Hezbollah, on Thursday warned protesters against blocking roads or resorting to vandalism.

Lebanon is experiencing its worst economic crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.

Australian Associated Press