Protesters hurled fireworks and ripped branches from trees to use against security forces firing rubber bullets and teargas in the most violent night of protests in Beirut since the beginning of mass anti-government demonstrations in Lebanon three months ago.
Lebanese medical groups said at least 377 people had been injured, including 80 who were taken to hospital on Saturday during the unrest that organisers have called the “week of anger”, after a relative lull in the protests that have rocked the country since October.
One demonstrator lost his right eye after being struck with a rubber bullet, medics said.
The public prosecutor ordered 34 of those arrested to be released on Sunday. It was unclear how many people, if any, remained in custody.
Organisers had called for protesters in different parts of the capital to converge by sundown on the road leading to the Lebanese parliament in central Beirut. Before they arrived, a demonstration at the barricade leading to the institution had turned violent. Protesters rammed riot police with traffic signs, tree branches and planks, and officers used batons, water cannon and teargas to disperse them.
The clashes intensified throughout the night as more protesters streamed into the area and made repeated attempts to breach the barricade, hurling rocks and fireworks as police fired rubber bullets and teargas that blanketed central Beirut in a milky haze.
The pitched battles across the area of Beirut that was a frontline of the country’s 15-year civil war lasted about nine hours, spilling on to the steps and into the courtyard of a prominent mosque, inside which some protesters had sought refuge.
This latest, most intense phase of what protesters have called a revolution came as the country’s political elites were deadlocked over the formation of a new government that demonstrators have already rejected, and as the country’s economy freefalls, with 160,000 jobs lost and one in 10 companies closing since October.
One demonstrator, Roula, said the first wave of protests had failed to shake the country’s ruling elites, and so a more hardline approach was called for. “It’s not peaceful any more because they don’t want to hear us,” she said. “They are trying to rebuild the government with their own people, as if nothing has happened.”
Demonstrators have called for the appointment of a cabinet of experts with no affiliation to the parties in power. Lebanon’s postwar political system divides power along the lines of the country’s major religious groups, which demonstrators say entrenches corruption and enriches a small group of sectarian elites.
A shortage of the US dollars that grease the Lebanese economy has led banks to impose capital controls on both American and local currency, preventing people from withdrawing more than $300 (£230) a week and focusing popular rage on the banking system.
“I want to be there breaking doors, breaking glass, burning banks,” Roula said. “As civilised and educated as I am, I want to be there yelling at ministers dining in fancy restaurants with our money. I want to be there to humiliate them.”
Human rights groups accused the police of using disproportionate force to crack down on the demonstrations on Saturday and throughout the past week. “The level of injuries we saw last night we haven’t seen since the protests started, both the severity and the amount,” said Aya Majzoub, the Lebanon researcher for Human Rights Watch.
“We saw riot police firing very large quantities of teargas including at protesters who were already dispersing … They were firing directly at people and there is clear footage showing teargas canisters hitting people’s heads, causing serious injuries. We are very fortunate nobody lost their lives.”
Police accused protesters of rioting and posted pictures of officers being treated for injuries from pillars stripped of tiles that they said the demonstrators had been flinging at security personnel.
“For the protests to turn into a blatant attack on the security forces and public and private properties, this is condemned and totally unacceptable,” Raya El Hassan, the interior minister, tweeted.
This week’s protests have left the windows of dozens of banks across Beirut shattered and their walls tagged with anti-government slogans, including during demonstrations that became violent outside Lebanon’s central bank in the Hamra neighbourhood, where Monia was sitting in a gutter holding her injured nose.
“The police hit me,” the architect, 25, said. “There was someone they were trying to arrest, a guy. I didn’t even know him, but I grabbed him so they couldn’t take him and they hit me instead.”
She said the collapsing value of the lira had cut the value of her salary of 1.5m Lebanese lira (£762) a month by a third, while the depreciating currency had also pushed up the price of imported goods. “My earnings have gone down without me doing anything,” she said.
Her parents had forbidden her from joining the demonstrations after men in civilian clothes, sometimes wearing masks and thought to be political party supporters, started turning up and scuffling with protesters. “They think I’m at work,” Monia said.
The protests started on 17 October after the government attempted to impose a tax on WhatsApp, the messaging app that has become ubiquitous in a country whose two state-owned mobile phone companies charge some of the highest rates in the world.
They rapidly evolved into a broad movement calling for an overhaul of the system, drawing in communities from the northern city of Tripoli, southern cities such as Nabatieh and elsewhere that were considered to be strongholds of established political forces such as the Sunni-aligned Future Movement and the Shia group Hezbollah.
The first wave of demonstrations appeared to be closer to a street party, with tens of thousands of people across the country and across sectarian lines gathering to sing, dance and chant anti-government slogans.
Political elites have been reluctant to heed the key demand of demonstrators: that they relinquish power and allow an interim cabinet to pass fundamental governance reforms. The cabinet collapsed after the former prime minister Saad Hariri resigned in November, citing the protests, and leaders are deadlocked over the formation of a new ruling group.