BEIRUT, Dec 17 (Reuters) – Lebanon’s parliament speaker and caretaker prime minister warned against strife on Tuesday after clashes between supporters of Shi’ite groups and security forces overnight stirred fears of further political and economic turmoil.
Lebanon has been gripped by protests since Oct. 17, leading to the resignation of Saad al-Hariri as prime minister, amid anger at the government’s failure to address the country’s worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Security forces lobbed tear gas overnight in central Beirut to disperse supporters of the Shi’ite Amal party of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and its ally the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement.
Hundreds of men on motorcycles waving their party flags chanted “Shi’ite, Shi’ite”. They set tyres on fire, hurled stones at security forces and torched cars, witnesses said.
They said they were furious at a video that circulated online in which a man curses their party and religious leaders, including Berri and Imam Ali, using language that could be inflammatory in a country with deep sectarian divisions.
The men tried to break a security cordon around a square where tents have been set up as part of the wave of protests against the ruling elite which erupted two months ago.
In a statement after meeting on Tuesday, Berri and Hariri, two of the country’s top leaders, urged the Lebanese “not to get dragged towards strife” and to maintain civil peace.
“The national need has become more than pressing to speed up forming the government,” the statement added.
Lebanon’s main parties have feuded over how to agree a new government since Hariri – the leading Sunni politician – resigned under pressure from the protests. He has stayed on as caretaker prime minister.
The job of premier is reserved for a Sunni, according to the country’s sectarian power-sharing system.
The Internal Security Forces said on Tuesday that 65 police were injured in the violence overnight and three people were detained.
In the mainly Sunni city of Sidon and the mainly Shi’ite city of Nabatieh in the south, groups of men also attacked protest tents overnight, local TV stations said.
Angry at chants against their politicians, Amal and Hezbollah supporters have at times attacked protesters who are seeking to remove a political class that has dominated Lebanon since the civil war.
The unrest took a violent turn at the weekend when security forces fired tear gas in Beirut at protesters and dozens of people were wounded in the clashes.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis, Additional reporting by Laila Bassam, Editing by William Maclean)