Protesters Return to Central Beirut after Hizbullah, AMAL Supporters Ransack Protest Site

Hundreds of Hizbullah and AMAL Movement supporters, some wielding sticks, on Tuesday attacked a protest camp set up by anti-government demonstrators in downtown Beirut, burning some of its tents and dismantling others.

The violence came shortly after dozens of other Hizbullah and AMAL supporters, also wielding sticks, attacked a roadblock set up by the protesters on neighboring Ring highway, a main thoroughfare in the capital.

Groups of protesters eventually returned to the main squares and began repairing their tents, while others went back to blocking the roads. They could be heard chanting one of the main slogans of the protests, "All means all," which is seen as referring to all of Lebanon's political factions, including Hizbullah and its allies.

It was unclear how many people were wounded. Fights broke out in places and security forces could be seen beating some people with batons.

The protesters armed themselves with wooden batons and metal poles as the Hizbullah and AMAL supporters approached but fled when the counterdemonstrators arrived in larger numbers. Security forces later fired tear gas to disperse them, but only after they had destroyed and set fire to several tents.

For nearly two weeks, the main protest square had been home to impromptu concerts in the evenings, with hundreds dancing deep into the night to music blasting from speakers.

After Tuesday's attack, streets were strewn with litter, as people tried to salvage what they could from the torched remains of their tents.

"There are political orders to attack. This was not spontaneous," said one demonstrator alluding to AMAL and Hizbullah, neither of which were spared by protesters, including from their own base.

The violence comes on the 13th day of Lebanon's anti-government protests, which have been an unprecedented expression of anger that's united millions of Lebanese against what demonstrators say is a corrupt and inefficient political class in power for decades since the 1975-1990 civil war.

But in recent days, Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah grew critical of the protests, claiming they have been backed and financed by foreign powers and rival political groups. He called on his supporters to leave the rallies, and urged the protesters on Friday to remove the roadblocks. The mass rallies have paralyzed a country already grappling with a severe fiscal crisis.

Hizbullah and its allies dominate the current government and is the country's most powerful organization, building its credibility on its resistance to Israel's years-long occupation of parts of Lebanon.

The riot police and military first moved in Tuesday trying to separate the rival groups, but the security forces failed to stop the storming of Martyrs Square, where anti-government protesters have held their ground since Oct. 17.

The protesters are calling on the government to step down, holding rallies in public squares and promoting a civil disobedience campaign that include blocking main roads.

At the Beirut roadblock, the angry crowd swelled by early afternoon, some using sticks to chase protesters away. Some of the men also attacked journalists, kicking them and attempting to smash their cameras.

Many among the angry mob chanted: "God, Nasrallah, and the whole Dahiyeh," in reference to the southern suburb that is a stronghold of Hizbullah. Others told TV crews that they were upset at the roadblocks and insults to their leader.

Then they marched to the central square, tearing down tents, smashing plastic chairs and using metal poles to poke holes in the tents, which they later burned. They also beat some anti-government protesters. One TV presenter described it as "a war scene."

In his speech on Friday, Nasrallah evoked the specter of new civil war like the one that ended in 1990, saying "someone is trying to pull it ... toward a civil war."

It was seen a precursor to the confrontation Tuesday.

Source: Naharnet, Associated Press, Agence France Presse

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