Violent Beirut riots and protests bring chaos, injuries and death

The protests erupted over the government’s plan to impose new taxes during a severe economic crisis.

By Associated Press 

Lebanese security forces fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of protesters in Beirut after they tried to push through security barriers around the government headquarters amid some of the largest demonstrations the country has seen in years. The riots left two people dead and dozens injured.

The protests erupted over the government’s plan to impose new taxes during a severe economic crisis, with people taking their anger out on politicians they accuse of corruption and decades of mismanagement.

The protests started with a few dozen people gathering in central Beirut over the imposition of a 20-cent daily fee on messaging applications, including WhatsApp. They quickly escalated into some of the biggest demonstrations since an uprising over a garbage crisis in 2015, with thousands of people taking part.

People gathered near the government headquarters and parliament building, where riot police were deployed, chanting: “Revolution!” and “Thieves!” — the latter a reference to widespread corruption in a country that has one of the highest debt loads in the world.

Some protesters threw stones, shoes, and water bottles at security forces and scuffled with police. Security forces said at least 60 of its members were injured in the clashes. Protesters were also injured.

State-run National News Agency said two foreign workers choked to death when a fire was set in a building where they were sleeping in downtown Beirut. George Kittaneh, the head of the Lebanese Red Cross, said 22 people fainted and were taken to a hospital while 70 were treated on the spot.

Police showed restraint as they were pelted with stones for several hours, firing volleys of tear gas only after protesters broke through the first security barrier near the government house. Police chased protesters through the streets of Beirut’s commercial district through the night.

The protests could plunge Lebanon into a political crisis with unpredictable repercussions for the economy which has been in steady decline. Some of the protesters said they would stay in the streets until the government resigns.

“The government is trying to help Lebanese citizens avoid a collapse,” Interior Minister Raya al-Hassan, who ruled out the possibility of a cabinet resignation, told the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV. “If another government is formed it will take the same measures.”

Protesters closed major intersections with burning tires and garbage containers, causing traffic jams. As the protests escalated, the minister of education declared that public and private schools and universities would close Friday.

Years of regional turmoil — worsened by an influx of 1.5 million Syrian refugees since 2011 — are catching up with the small Arab country. Lebanon has the third-highest debt level in the world, currently standing at about $86 billion, or 150% of its gross domestic product.