BEIRUT: Riot police used clubs, tear gas and water cannon to disperse hundreds of anti-government protesters who dismantled a security barrier in Downtown Beirut Thursday in a fresh attempt to access a heavily fortified square outside Parliament.
Medics said at least seven protesters were wounded, and 35 others treated for tear gas inhalation, after the violence erupted outside the An-Nahar newspaper building near Martyrs' Square. Police said several of their officers were also wounded, including a number in critical condition, by protesters who chucked stones and other objects at them.
Organizers said at least 32 protesters were arrested, including several peaceful demonstrators who had raised their arms in a symbolic gesture to show that they were opposed to the violence, but were plucked from the crowd by police.
But many more were rounded up after midnight when dozens of riot police charged them to clear the area following hours of clashes. Television footage showed police shoving, striking and slapping protesters after catching them.
Among those arrested after police charged them was Imad Bazzi, a protest leader affiliated with the You Stink campaign. Bazzi had earlier been treated at a hospital for minor wounds suffered during the protest.
You Stink had declared after 10:00 p.m. that the protest would continue until Prime Minister Tammam Salam calls for an emergency Cabinet session to solve the garbage crisis, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk accepts responsibility for the police violence, and all protesters are freed.
A lawyer representing the protesters said police officials told him they would not release anyone until they clear the streets.
By midnight, clashes between the rock-throwing protesters and security forces who continued to fire tear gas and water cannon, showed no signs of abating. Some of the protesters had entered the nearby Le Grey hotel and smashed security cameras.
The protesters had originally gathered in Riad al-Solh Square and nearby Martyrs' Square to keep up pressure on the government to solve the country’s nearly three-month-long trash crisis and call for an end to corruption.
Protest organizers were determined to access Nejmeh Square, where Parliament is located, as they had attempted to do in several past demonstrations. But police have set up several layers of security barriers to prevent them from reaching the site.
"We will not tolerate this anymore," Ali Slim, a You Stink organizer, said. "This is not acceptable to attack people who come down to protest for their rights."
"There has been a political decision from inside the Interior Ministry to attack us," he added.
Assaad Thebian, another You Stink organizer, also denounced police actions.
"Why do we not have enough water in our water tanks, or enough water to drink, but you have enough water to spray us? Shame on you," he said, addressing police.
Police first began firing water cannon just before 7:00 p.m. and continued for about two hours when the water truck motor overheated and began to smoke. That truck pulled back and was replaced by another water cannon truck, which resumed spraying the protesters until police charged protesters just after midnight.
Many children were present at the protest.
"I came down here to learn how to defend my rights," a young boy looking to be about 13 years old said.
Protesters first came face-to-face with riot police as they attempted to reach Nejmeh Square. After crossing the first barrier, police detained four activists, including former hunger striker Waref Sleiman.
Sleiman went on hunger strike last month with a group of other activists for about two weeks to demand the resignation of Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk.
The Internal Security Forces blamed “rioters” for causing the clashes, saying that they “provoked the policemen by removing the security barriers put in place, and threw water bottles and stones toward them.”
In a statement released after the clashes broke out, police also said they were forced to use tear gas and water cannon against the protesters to prevent them from reaching Nejmeh Square and “worsen the situation, especially after many riot police members were critically wounded.”
A statement read aloud by Ali Tay, a spokesman from the You Stink campaign, reiterated their demands for the resignation of Machnouk, for the government to lift the trash off the streets that has been accumulating since July in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, releasing municipality funds, terminating Sukleen's contract and activating the recycling plants around the country.
“We are here today to tell them (politicians) that they have failed and they have no shame... They fight in front of us then sit together away from the media,” Nehmat Badreddine, a founder of the We Want Accountability campaign, said before the violence broke out.
She vowed that the protests will continue until the government responds to the demands of the civil society campaigns.
Workers had erected concrete blocks and barbed wire at the entrance to Waygan Street near An-Nahar building in the morning in anticipation of the protest. People who were inside Downtown Beirut's premises at the time the barriers were erected were forced to climb over the blocks to exit.
“The more cement blocks they use to close roads, the more they prove to us that they are afraid of us and we are right,” Badreddine added.
You Stink and other groups last week called for a protest at 6:00 p.m. in Martyrs’ Square, but We Want Accountability Wednesday urged its supporters to gather at 5:00 p.m.
The actions are part of their ongoing campaign against the government and the political class over the failure to resolve the two-month-long trash crisis.
Several activists from "The People Want," "You Stink," "August 22 Gathering," "Change is Coming" and other civil society movements had marched at dawn Wednesday from Beirut's Cola area to the residence of Prime Minister Tammam Salam in Mseitbeh to wake him up and urge him to call for an emergency Cabinet session that has one topic on its agenda.
A plan approved by Cabinet last month called for the establishment of two sanitary landfills, one in the northern district of Akkar and another in the Masnaa area of the Bekaa Valley.
The plan, which was devised by Agriculture Minister Akram Chehayeb, would also see the reopening of the Naameh landfill for seven days, to relieve Beirut and Mount Lebanon from trash that has been mounting on the streets for two months, and would support robust waste recycling initiatives.