BEIRUT: Police fired gunshots in the air and teargas Sunday to disperse hundreds of protesters attempting to storm the Grand Serail, the facilities housing Lebanon’s government, as Future Movement officials urged the demonstrators to vacate the streets.
There were casualties on both sides and ambulances rushed to the scene to clear the injured.
The incident occurred just moments after speeches ended at Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque near Martyrs’ Square.
Thousands gathered at Martyrs’ Square where Brig. Gen. Wissam Hasan, who was assassinated in a car bombing late last week, was buried near the tomb of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Hasan, 47,was the head of the police’s Information Branch since its inception in 2006 and played a pivotal role in uncovering Israeli spy networks.
Minutes after the clashes, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the head of the Future Movement, called on his supporters to end the violence, saying the attempt to break into the Grand Serail was unacceptable.
“We are not seekers of violence ... I urge all my supporters to end the sit-in and leave the streets,” he said in a phone call to Future Television.
He said if need be, he would put security units assigned to protecting his Beirut residence at the disposal of the Grand Serail to protect the government house.
On Saturday, members of the March 14 youth erected tents as part of a sit-in to protest the assassination of Hasan. The March 14 Saturday also called for a mass demo at Martyrs’ Spuare to call for the resignation of the government as well as to show support to Hasan.
Future parliamentary bloc leader MP Fouad Siniora also called for calm.
“We can appreciate the emotions of the protesters but I think that breaking through the Grand Serail and using violence is unacceptable,” he told several media stations.
Moments before the clashes erupted, Siniora delivered a powerful speech aimed at the government, in which he called on Prime Minister Najib Mikati to step down.
“We are still committed to what we have already said but we reject any use of violence to fulfill our demands,” he told media channels.
Sources in the Future Movement told The Daily Star that the opposition party had no intention of toppling Mikati’s government through mass demonstrations.
“Hariri and Siniora’s swift calls urging protesters not to take the streets aimed at preventing interference by a fifth column,” one source said.
The head of the Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, also called on March 14 and LF supporters to back away from the Grand Serail immediately and to hold peaceful protests.
The clashes outside government took place at 4.20 p.m. and lasted for about an hour before calm was restored.
Anti-riot police and Lebanese soldiers were deployed to boost security around the complex.
Minutes after the protesters tried to break through the 19th century building, several Future Movement supporters blocked a main road in the southern coastal of Sidon with burning tires.
MP Bahia Hariri, who hails from the city, urged the supporters to refrain from taking to the streets and called on the Lebanese Army to reopen all roads. – With additional reporting by Mohammed Zaatari.