Lebanese take to streets for 10th day defying Hezbollah

Demonstrators shout slogans during ongoing anti-government protests in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, October 26, 2019. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Demonstrators across Lebanon blocked roads and took to the streets on Saturday for a 10th consecutive day, defying what they said were attempts by Hezbollah to defuse their movement and despite tensions with the army.

The protesters -- who have thronged Lebanese towns and cities since October 17 -- are demanding the removal of the entire political class, accusing politicians of all stripes of systematic corruption.

Troops clashed with protesters who were trying to block the main road in the Beddawi area near the northern port city of Tripoli on Saturday, according to the state-run National News Agency.

At least six civilians were wounded, NNA said.

The army said five soldiers and several civilians were wounded when it intervened to stop a fight between area residents and people blocking the road with their cars.

Troops were ultimately "forced" to fire live and rubber bullets into the air when clashes intensified, the military said in a statement.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri called for an investigation into the incident, which has come amid what have otherwise been largely peaceful protests.

Demonstrators' numbers have declined since October 20, when hundreds of thousands took over Beirut and other cities in the largest demonstrations in years.

The chief of the powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah on Friday called on his supporters to leave the streets, warning that any cabinet resignation would lead to "chaos and collapse" of the economy.

Hassan Nasrallah's statement sowed divisions among Hezbollah supporters, some of whom were still protesting on Saturday.

Hassan Koteiche, 27, from a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut, said he agreed with most of Nasrallah's "excellent" speech, but had some reservations.

"This does not mean we are against his discourse but there is a divergence in opinion," he told AFP.

"The main thing I disagree with is his belief that if the government or parliament falls then we would have no alternative," he added.

"That is not true. We have alternatives. We have noble and uncorrupt people," who can govern.

Main roads remained closed across the country on Saturday.

Security forces said they have deployed across the country to open key routes.

The measure came after Lebanon's top security agencies launched an army-led "plan" on Saturday to clear roadblocks.

An army spokesman told AFP that security forces would negotiate with protesters, without resorting to violence.

Northeast of Beirut, dozens of demonstrators formed a human chain to prevent the army from removing a dirt berm blocking a seaside road.

In central Beirut, they sat cross-legged on a key artery that connects the capital to its suburbs and surrounding regions.

Demonstrators who had slept in tents near Martyrs Square said they were still defiant.

"We will stay on the streets," said Rabih al-Zein, a 34-year-old from the Shiite stronghold of Tyre in southern Lebanon.

"The power of the people is stronger than the power of the parties."

Lebanon's largely sectarian political parties have been wrong-footed by the cross-communal nature of the mostly peaceful protests.

Waving Lebanese flags rather than the partisan colours normally paraded at demonstrations, protesters have been demanding the resignation of all of Lebanon's political leaders.

In attempts to calm the anger, Hariri has pushed through a package of economic reforms, while President Michel Aoun suggested banking secrecy should be lifted from the accounts of high-ranking officials.

In recent days, loyalists of Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement have mobilised counter-demonstrations across the country, sparking scuffles with demonstrators and journalists.

The Iran-backed Hezbollah is a member of Lebanon's ruling coalition and represented in government, and it is the only movement not to have disarmed after the country's 15-year civil war.

It is considered a terrorist organisation by Israel and the United States.

Hundreds of its supporters gathered in the group's strongholds in Beirut's southern suburbs and the southern cities of Nabatiyeh and Tyre after Nasrallah's speech, brandishing party flags.

In Nabatiyeh on Saturday, dozens of anti-government demonstrators returned to the streets, with a protester saying he was counting on the army and security forces to protect them from party loyalists.

In a suburb north of Beirut, dozens of FPM loyalists staged a counter-demonstration to express their support for the embattled Aoun.

Lebanon's devastating civil war ended back in 1990 but many of its current political leaders are former commanders of wartime militias, most of them recruited on sectarian lines.

The persistent deadlock between them has stymied efforts to tackle the deteriorating economy, while the eight-year war in neighbouring Syria has compounded Lebanon's crisis.

More than a quarter of Lebanon's population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank.

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