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Hezbollah supporters destroy Lebanese protest camp


AP Beirut
Hundreds of Hezbollah supporters, many of them wielding batons, rampaged through the main anti-government protest camp in the Lebanese capital on Tuesday, torching tents, smashing plastic chairs and chasing away protesters.
Riot police raced through the streets but seemed powerless to stop the counter-protesters, who chanted Shiite religious slogans.
Scuffles initially broke out early Tuesday as the men cleared protesters from main roads, before they launched their assault on the main protest site in Beirut, where demonstrators had been camped out for nearly two weeks.
The rampage marked a violent turning point in Lebanon's protests, which have called for the resignation of the government and the overthrow of the political class that has dominated the country since its 1975-1990 civil war.
The government is dominated by factions allied with Hezbollah, the most powerful armed group in the country.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri was set to deliver a national address at 4 pm (1400 GMT).
The men who attacked the protesters initially presented themselves as disgruntled residents, frustrated that the protests have paralyzed the country.
But later they could be heard chanting "at your service, Hussein," a Shiite religious slogan, and "God, Nasrallah, and the whole Dahiyeh," referring to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and the group's stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut.
Soldiers and riot police initially moved in to separate the two groups, but were unable to prevent the Hezbollah supporters from storming Martyrs' Square in central Beirut, the main protest site.
Hezbollah supporters lashed out at reporters covering the melee, kicking some of them and reaching for their cameras.
It was unclear how many people were wounded. Fights broke out among some protesters and security forces could be seen beating some people with batons.
The dozens of protesters armed themselves with wooden batons and metal poles as the Hezbollah supporters approached but fled after they arrived in much larger numbers.
Security forces later fired tear gas to disperse them, but only after they had destroyed and set fire to several tents.
One TV presenter described it as "a war scene." Nasrallah had criticized the protests last week, accusing unnamed foreign powers of exploiting them to undermine his group and saying they threatened to drag the country into civil war.
The protests have thus far been largely peaceful, with only occasional minor scuffles with security forces trying to open the roads.
Hezbollah was the only armed group in Lebanon to maintain its weapons after the civil war, saying they were needed to defend the country from Israel, which occupied southern Lebanon from 1982 until 2000. Hezbollah later fought Israel to a stalemate during a ferocious month-long war in 2006.
Hezbollah is widely seen as being more militarily powerful than even the Lebanese armed forces.

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First Published: Oct 29 2019 | 7:50 PM IST

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