A major highway linking Beirut with south Lebanon was reopened Monday, after around 500 protesters had blocked it for a second day, triggering clashes with security forces that left three activists and four riot police officers wounded.
"Three protesters were wounded when security forces, using tear gas and firing shots in the air, tried to forcibly reopen the Jiyyeh highway," Barja Mayor Nashaat Hamiyeh told The Daily Star.
A security source said protesters tossed stones at police, wounding four members of the Internal Security Forces.
Hamiyeh had thrown his weight behind the protesters, who closed the vital highway in both directions Sunday to prevent apparent government plans to move trash piled on the streets of Beirut to the Iqlim al-Kharroub region south of the capital.
“We won’t back down and the road will remain closed until the Interior Minister [Nouhad Machnouk] and the government makes a promise in writing that they won’t use the Iqlim al-Kharroub region as a dumping ground,” he vowed earlier Monday, before bowing to political pressure to reopen.
Earlier Monday, hundreds of protesters formed a human shield to protect their villages, saying that they refused to suffer the same fate the residents nearby the controversial Naameh landfill — which was closed on July 17, nearly 18 years after its initial opening.
"Down with Machnouk," the protesters chanted, criticizing the interior minister for sending riot police to stop them from blocking the road.
Hamiyeh did not last long in the face of political pressure, announcing shortly before midday that preparations were underway to reopen the Jiyyeh highway.
“The highway will be reopened in half an hour,” he said, as he apologized for motorists who were stranded on the road.
Hamiyeh, nevertheless, warned that the highway would be blocked again if a decision was taken to dump trash in Iqlim al-Kharroub.
An updated statement by Machnouk said the protesters had responded his call to end their sit-in and “the Jiyyeh highway was now being reopened in both directions.”
Machnouk had promised earlier not to dump trash in Iqlim al-Kharroub without consent.
Following consultations between Prime Minister Tammam Salam, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt, Machnouk said: “We have decided that no waste would be transferred and no landfill would be created in any site in that area [Iqlim al-Kharroub] without an agreement reached with [the region’s] mayors and representatives of civil society.”
Salam also announced earlier that a solution was in the offing.
“We are nearing an interim solution that should presumably mature in the coming hours,” Salam said, in remarks published Monday by local newspaper As-Safir.
The demonstrators blocking the highway had also chanted slogans against Jumblatt, who had appeared more lenient in remarks published Monday.
A key player in the closure of the Naameh dump, Jumblatt said the government might be compelled to reopen the country's largest landfill temporarily, if other options to address the trash crisis — now in its eighth day — failed.
Security forces had managed to reopen the highway for a few minutes around 6 a.m., after which protesters brought in trucks and dumped sand into the road. Other demonstrators burned tires to cut off the road, while another group set up tents.
Around three hours later, the Lebanese Army and Internal Security Forces (ISF) brought in reinforcements to prevent any escalation while talks were ongoing.
Also Monday, a man died in a road accident at the intersection of the Iqlim al-Kharroub town of Jadra, causing brief panic among the protesters as the victim was initially thought to have been killed in a shootout with security forces.
In Beirut, angry residents temporarily blocked several roads to protest the government’s failure to remove the giant mounds of trash that have gone uncollected over the past week.
Police had diverted traffic Sunday to the old seaside road in an attempt to bypass the protests. The continuing diversion caused huge traffic jams in both directions Monday.
Motorists spent nearly four hours on the road Sunday due to the closure.
On Monday, dozens of commuters, including servicemen, were seen ditching buses and walking amid the massive traffic jam.
Sukleen, the company in charge of collecting trash from Beirut and Mount Lebanon, stopped working after the closure of the controversial Naameh landfill.
Mountains of garbage have piled up in and around Beirut since then, with politicians unable to find another site to dump the trash.
By Mohammed Zaatari
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