BEIRUT—Lebanese riot police battled in the streets of downtown Beirut for a second night Sunday after demonstrators rallied over government corruption and an ongoing trash crisis, violence that wounded at least 44 people and 30 police officers, authorities said.
The violence came hours after Prime Minister Tammam Salam hinted he might step down following violent protests Saturday that injured more than 100 people. The demonstrations, the largest in years to shake tiny Lebanon, seek to upend what protesters see as a corrupt and dysfunctional political system that has no functional Cabinet or parliament, nor a president for more than a year.
Protest organizers said they pulled their supporters out of the area after men they described as political thugs began fighting with police, trying to tear down a barbed wire fence separating the crowds from the Lebanese government building.
Sporadic gunfire could be heard in the capital’s commercial district into the night as police fired in the air to disperse those who remained after officers used tear gas and water cannons against the crowds.
Lebanese Red Cross spokesman George Kattaneh told Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television channel that the violence wounded 44 people who required hospital care, while some 200 others received medical treatment on the spot. A police statement said protesters wounded 30 police officers, one of whom was seriously hurt.
The chaos continued into the night as police battled masked youths who set up barricades in Beirut’s downtown and near the blue-domed Mohammad al-Amin Mosque in Martyrs’ Square. A few remaining protesters set tires ablaze there, with some even pulling down trees and throwing them into the fire. Thick black smoke drifted over the capital. Others damaged traffic lights and other public property.
At first, the protest began peacefully, with thousands angered over Lebanon’s political deadlock protesting. The demonstrators take root in the garbage piling up on the streets after the capital’s main landfill was closed a month ago. An online group calling itself “You Stink!” and other civil society groups organized the rallies, calling on Lebanese to join them in a revolt against political corruption.
“We are ruled by corrupt losers! All of them — warlords, legislators and ministers — are working for their own interest and not those of the people,” said Nada Qadoura, a retired woman who took part in Sunday’s protest along with two of her friends. “The will of the people will eventually succeed no matter how long it takes.”
The clashes broke out shortly before sunset when angry protesters tried to break through barbed wire in Riad Solh Square leading to the government’s headquarters. Police beat back protesters with clubs and water cannons, occasionally hurling stones at protesters who threw rocks and water bottles.
Later Sunday evening, protesters broke through the first barbed wire after intense clashes with security forces. When the protesters got closer to the government headquarters, police fired tear gas, forcing thousands to flee.
The protesters set a police motorcycle ablaze. Some protesters carrying clubs also attacked police vehicles, hurling stones and bottles at them.
“Shabiha!” the protesters would shout, an Arabic term often used to refer to thugs.
At least four men were seen being led away by security forces, their hand tied behind their backs.
Sunday’s protest was larger than the previous day’s, with some local television stations saying about 20,000 people participated.
Protesters now are demanding that the country’s top politicians resign, saying they are not fit to rule to country. Salam, Lebanon’s prime minister, said in a news conference earlier Sunday that if this Thursday’s Cabinet meeting is not productive, “then there is no need for the council of ministers.”
Lebanon has a sectarian power-sharing system that ensures equal representation between the country’s main religious sects. The arrangement often leads to complete paralysis, though Lebanon has been relatively calm amid regional instability. A resignation by Salam would risk plunging the country into further chaos.
Lebanon managed to survive the Arab Spring uprisings that toppled Arab dictators, the onslaught by the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq and the fallout from 1.2 million Syrian refugees now straining its economy.
But political disputes have kept the country without a president for more than a year. Parliament has extended its own term twice and has not convened because lawmakers differ on whether they can continue working before voting for a president.
That deadlock led to the trash crisis, which has some residents burning trash on the streets, sending toxic fumes over the city’s skyline and into homes. Lebanon’s health minister has warned of a coming environmental catastrophe as some have started dumping trash in valleys, rivers and near the sea.