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Beirut protesters occupy ministry, demand minister resigns

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Protesters occupied the environment ministry in the Lebanese capital on Tuesday, calling on minister Mohamad Al Machnouk to resign over a rubbish disposal crisis, the latest in a wave of unrest over the paralysed political system.

The “You Stink” anti-government campaign has brought thousands of disaffected Lebanese onto the streets in recent weeks in an unprecedented mobilisation by civil society groups acting independently of the country’s big, sectarian parties.

“Machnouk - out, out, out!” chanted several dozen protesters packed into corridor in the ministry. They said they had entered quietly in small groups before security personnel blocked the main door to the building.

Some nine hours after it started, the protest ended late into the evening with all demonstrators leaving the building. Protesters interviewed by New TV said police had beaten them while forcing them from the premises.

The interior minister was quoted by the National News Agency as saying an agreement had been reached for the protesters to leave peacefully.

“We today showed this government does not want to listen to its people,” Marwan Maalouf, one of the organisers, told New TV.

“We will continue in our movement.”

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Hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside, some scuffling with riot police as night fell. “The people want the downfall of the regime!” they chanted. The interior ministry said police were pelted with water bottles, fireworks and rocks.

The You Stink campaign was ignited by the government’s failure to agree a solution to a rubbish collection crisis that has left piles of trash to accumulate in the summer heat.

It has also provided a rallying point for frustrations with widely perceived corruption and incompetence in the sectarian political system.

Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s national unity government, formed last year, has struggled to take even the most basic decisions, reflecting the wider crisis in a country whose political system has been paralysed by the war in Syria.

The cabinet includes the powerful Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, and the Future Movement, led by the Saudi-backed Sunni politician Saad al-Hariri, together with rival Christian parties.

The Future Movement said the protest served those who seek “chaos” in Lebanon, and rejected the idea that any minister be forced to resign in this way.

Protesters hold magazines of Environment Ministry Mohammad Machnouk upside down during a protest in the environment ministry in downtown Beirut, Lebanon September 1, 2015. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said “occupying the ministry was not the way to deal with the trash issue and other demands”.

There was no immediate comment from the other big parties.

Thousands took to the streets of Beirut on Saturday against corruption and it turned into one of the largest rallies ever in Lebanon organised independently of political blocs.

More than two decades since the end of Lebanon’s civil war, the country continues to have daily power cuts, frequent water shortages and has seen an influx of well over 1 million Syrian refugees.

The environment minister withdrew from a committee dealing with the garbage crisis on Monday but that has not mollified protesters.

Additional reporting Mariam Karouny; Editing by Tom Perry and Mark Heinrich