Naharnet

Dozens Arrested in Clashes as Rival Leaders Hold 2nd Dialogue Session

Lebanon's rival leaders met for the second round of national dialogue on Wednesday as scores of civil society activists clashed with security forces during a demonstration aimed at shaming the officials for failing to resolve crucial issues.

The all-party talks were chaired by Speaker Nabih Berri at the parliament for the second week in a row as “You Stink” movement activists staged a protest to coincide with the dialogue in downtown Beirut.

They clashed with baton-wielding anti-riot police after trying to push the metal barriers that security forces have erected to close off Nejmeh Square where parliament is located. Dozens of protesters were arrested during the confrontation before being released in the afternoon and evening.

Video footage showed police dragging at least two protesters on the ground while violently beating them both.

The protesters accused the Internal Security Forces of using force and assaulting them, but police stressed said it respects the people's freedom of expression and peaceful demonstration rights.

Later, anti-riot police chased protesters who had blocked the road near the Environment Ministry. The road closure came after several hunger strikers, who had erected tents in the area, were arrested during the clash with security forces.

Later in the day, young men claiming to be supporters of Berri attacked protesters at the camp and destroyed their tents over alleged insults against the parliament speaker.

Riot police intervened after a second attack was waged and at least one of the assailants was arrested.

TV footage showed the attackers hurling chairs and rocks at the protesters of whom several were injured.

The developments prompted protest organizers to call for an open-ended sit-in at the Riad al-Solh Square that started at 6:00 pm. The sit-in moved to the hunger strike camp near the Environment Ministry after all detainees were freed in the evening.

"Today we proved that we don't fear repression or intimidation and we will continue our battle until we achieve our demands," the activist Arabi al-Endari announced at Riad al-Solh in the name of the protest movement.

Earlier, a peaceful demonstration was held near Martyrs Square by the relatives of the servicemen taken hostage by jihadists in August last year when they overran the northeastern border town of Arsal.

A family member shouted: "Our cause is more important than all other issues."

"We want our cause to be discussed at the dialogue table," said another. "Let them stop lying to us that our sons will be released."

The dialogue session ended around 4:00 pm and several participants described the atmosphere as positive.

“The conferees discussed means to reach a breakthrough in the issue of the presidential election and other topics,” said an official statement issued after the session.

“They stressed their support for the government in the implementation of the decisions that were taken to address the vital issues and it was decided to hold the next session on Tuesday, September 22 at 12:00 pm,” it added.

Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas said Speaker Berri rejected “all proposals that breach the Constitution.”

Meanwhile, Telecom Minister Butros Harb said the session was “good,” hoping dialogue “will open the door for solutions.”

For his part, Deputy Speaker Farid Makari said “it is impossible to amend the Constitution in order to elect a president by a popular vote.”

MTV, meanwhile, said Change and Reform bloc leader MP Michel Aoun told Berri that “the Free Patriotic Movement's participation in today's dialogue session might be the last if the conferees do not endorse the proposal of 'resorting to the people.'”

Last Wednesday, anti-government protesters gathered near the parliament building, which was closed off by security forces, and hurled eggs as politicians' convoys drove by.

Later in the day, thousands of demonstrators braved a sandstorm to take to downtown Beirut's streets and rally against government dysfunction.

The trash crisis has ignited the largest Lebanese protests in years and has emerged as a festering symbol of the government's paralysis and failure to provide basic services. It was sparked by popular anger over the heaps of trash accumulating in the streets of Beirut and Mount Lebanon after authorities closed Lebanon's largest landfill in Naameh on July 17 and failed to provide an alternative.

Berri said in his opening statement on Wednesday that only dialogue would lead to salvation.

The national dialogue has on its agenda the presidential vacuum, the resumption of the work of parliament and the cabinet, a new electoral draft-law, legislation allowing Lebanese expats to obtain the nationality, administrative decentralization and ways to support the Lebanese Army and the Internal Security Forces.

It was attended by the same officials who took part in the talks last week, except for Change and Reform bloc leader MP Michel Aoun, who sent Foreign Minister Jebran Bassil as his representative.

The country has been without a president for over a year, and lawmakers have illegally extended their term twice amid disputes over the election law.

After meeting for three and a half hours last week, the leaders of various parliamentary blocs issued a brief statement, saying the talks would resume in a week.

G.K./Y.R.


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