Police fired volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets in the Lebanese capital on Saturday to disperse thousands of protesters amid some of the worst riots since demonstrations against the country's ruling elite three months ago. More than 150 people were injured.
The violence started when some protesters started throwing stones at the police stationed near the parliament building, while others removed street signs and metal barriers and threw them at the security forces. Protesters also threw fireworks at the police.
The clashes occurred in the context of a rapidly worsening financial crisis and a continuing stalemate over the formation of a new government after the cabinet led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned in late October.
Lebanon has witnessed three months of protests against the political elite that has ruled the country since the end of the 1975-90 civil war.
Protesters blame politicians for corruption and maladministration in a country that has accumulated one of the highest debt ratios in the world.
Protesters called for a demonstration on Saturday afternoon with the theme "we will not pay the price" in reference to debts of around $ 87 billion ($ 114 billion), or more than 150 percent of GDP.
When riots broke out in downtown Beirut, thousands of other protesters later arrived from three different parts of the city to participate in the demonstration.
They were later dispersed and chased by the police to nearby Praça dos Mártires, which has been a center of protests.
"We call on the security forces to be merciful"
Lebanon's Homeland Security Forces urged all peaceful protesters to "immediately leave the disturbance area for their own safety". He added that some police officers who were taken for treatment in hospitals were attacked by protesters inside medical centers.
As the clashes continued, about two dozen men believed to be parliamentary guards attacked the tents of protesters in Martyrs' Square, setting them on fire. A gas cylinder inside one of the tents exploded. The fire spread quickly and charred a store nearby.
The bells of nearby St. George's Cathedral began to ring in an apparent call for calm, while the loudspeakers of the adjacent blue-domed Muhammad Al-Amin mosque called for nightly prayers.
Later in the evening, hundreds of protesters shouting "Revolution" pursued a contingent of riot police near the mosque's entrance, forcing them to withdraw. Inside the mosque, several men were treated for gas inhalation and some families said they were hiding inside.
"We call on the security forces to be merciful to women and children inside the mosque," a statement sounded over the mosque's speakers.
President Michel Aoun called on security forces to protect peaceful protesters and work on mollusc restoration in central Beirut and on public and private property. He asked defense and interior ministers and heads of security agencies to act.
"The clashes, fires and acts of sabotage in central Beirut are crazy, suspicious and rejected. They threaten civil peace and warn of serious consequences," tweeted Hariri, the interim prime minister, who lives nearby. He called those behind the disturbances "outlaws" and called on the police and armed forces to protect Beirut.
The Lebanese Red Cross said it took 65 people to hospitals and treated 100 others there, asking people to donate blood. As the clashes continued, more ambulances were seen rushing to the area and evacuating the wounded.
At the end of Saturday, most of the protesters were forced to leave the area by the police firing tear gas and sometimes rubber bullets. Still, security remained restricted when more reinforcements arrived.
Panic and anger overtook the public as they watched their local currency, pegged to the dollar for more than two decades, plummet, losing more than 60% of its value in recent weeks on the black market. The economy saw no growth and foreign inflows dried up in the already indebted country, which depends on imports for most of its basic goods.
Meanwhile, banks have imposed informal capital controls, limiting dollar withdrawals and transfers abroad.
Earlier this week, protesters carried out acts of vandalism in one of Beirut's main commercial areas, targeting mainly private banks.
In addition to the crisis, Lebanon has been without a government since Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned on October 29, meeting an important demand from protesters.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab was expected to announce an 18-member cabinet on Friday, but last-minute disputes between political factions prevented his last attempt.