BEIRUT: Seven soldiers and 17 protesters were wounded during a scuffle between the Lebanese Army and Free Patriotic Movement supporters near the Grand Serail in Downtown Beirut Thursday, the military and activists said.
The violence began when supporters of MP Michel Aoun charged through an Army barrier and marched toward the Grand Serail where the Cabinet was meeting.
But they only advanced about 50 meters until being stopped by a second line of soldiers.
The Army had tried in vain to hold back the protesters who took to the streets about an hour after Prime Minister Tammam Salam angrily shouted at FPM Minister Gebran Bassil in Cabinet over a month-long political dispute related to security appointments.
Baton-wielding soldiers hit demonstrators as they forced their way through the barrier, causing some to fall to the ground. Some protesters hit back with their flag sticks.
The Army said seven soldiers were wounded during the confrontation, and FPM activists said 17 were hurt among their ranks.
The Lebanese Army said in a statement that the military “will not be drawn into any confrontation with any [political] team.”
“Our goal is to protect the constitutional institutions and public and private property, [ensure] the safety of citizens as well as secure the freedom of expression of all the Lebanese people in accordance with the laws and regulations,” the Army said.
At least one FPM activist was arrested on Banks Street, according to television reports. He was identified as Tony Orban.
FPM lawmakers on the scene had encouraged the protesters to enter the Grand Serail.
“Why shouldn’t they [protesters] move forward?” MP Ibrahim Kanaan said.
Security forces had taken tight measures in anticipation of the protests. The Lebanese Army blocked access to the Grand Serail and riot police stood guard at the main entrance of the government building.
Television footage showed the protesters stuck outside a security perimeter in Downtown Beirut for about 30 minutes before they tried to bypass it by taking a different route.
But dozens of soldiers then rushed to block off their new route. Some of the protesters tried to force their way through, sparking an initial brief scuffle. Television footage showed one man's hand covered in blood.
Antoun Souaid, the president of the FPM Youth Sector, urged the protesters to back down and not to challenge the Army. He later told reporters that the FPM was fully supportive of the Army and regretted the violence, noting one of the protesters was receiving treatment at a hospital.
The protesters later divided into two groups: one at Riad al-Solh Square, and another at the nearby Banks Street.
The protesters at Banks Street then began chanting: "God, Lebanon, Aoun, and that's it!" After several minutes of chanting, the protesters charged toward soldiers and broke through their security perimeter.
Kanaan denounced as "unacceptable" the violent response of security forces who prevented the protesters from marching to the Grand Serail.
"A man was injured," he said, challenging a reporter who appeared to suggest the protesters were responsible for the scuffle. He accused the government of trying to suppress their right to protest.
"We are not used to taking permission from anyone, especially when it comes to national issues," he said.
Protesters cleared Dowtown Beirut after the end of the Cabinet session, with a number of them telling reporters they were heading to Rabieh, where Aoun held a news conference an hour later.
In his speech, Aoun criticized the Army for "assaulting" the protesters and expressed doubt that seven soldiers were wounded.
In response, the Army published a brief statement on Twitter saying its troops only responded with violence after they were attacked by the protesters.
The demonstrators, who had been gathered outside the FPM headquarters in Sin al-Fil since 10 a.m. when the Cabinet sesssion got underway, decided to protest outside the Grand Serail after a shouting match erupted between Salam and Bassil.
"We will break the hands of anyone who tries to break ours," one Aoun partisan said from the gathering site.
"Our dignity was trampled upon," another shouted.
Television footage showed Salam pounding his hand on the table in anger at Bassil during the Cabinet meeting.
The FPM-run news site Tayyar.org said in a news alert that "Daeshi (ISIS-like) Salam has insulted Christians."
Aoun has been enraged after the government last week ignored the FPM's demand to prioritize the issue of key security and military appointments.