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Tax hike, stagnant wages spark protests in Beirut

A Lebanese anti-government demonstrator holds a sign with a photo of the Lebanese government in Arabic that reads

A Lebanese anti-government demonstrator holds a sign with a photo of the Lebanese government in Arabic that reads "Thieves of Lebanon," as she shouts slogans during a protest against newly approved taxes in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, March 19, 2017. Thousands of demonstrators have descended on central Beirut to protest a broad tax hike they say is unfairly targeting the country's working classes. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

BEIRUT — Demonstrators in downtown Beirut pelted Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri's car with water bottles on Sunday as protests against new taxes and a stagnant public wage scale jolted the city.

Hariri got out of his armoured convoy behind the police line at the demonstration facing the government's headquarters but could get no closer as protesters began throwing bottles and harrying him with cries of "Thieves!"

With water bottles falling around him and his bodyguards shielding him with their arms, Hariri told TV cameras: "It's true there is waste and corruption in the country, but we will fight it."

He then left the area on foot.

Thousands of people came to the city centre to protest a broad tax hike they say is unfairly targeting the working class.

Demonstrators said the government has squandered public funds through shady public-private contracts and should plug the budget deficit by addressing corruption instead. Parliament approved some tax hikes on Wednesday.

The government is paralyzed over a budget proposal that would hike over a dozen tax rates to fund a salary increase for teachers and civil servants. Parliament has not authorized a new budget since 2005.

The demonstrations are the latest display of mounting discontent with Lebanon's political elite. The politicians, many of whom led the militias that tore the country apart in the 1975-1990 civil war, are widely seen as corrupt and out of touch.

Demonstrators poured into the streets in 2015 to protest a collapse in the country's waste management sector that left trash piling up across the capital district.

Sunday's demonstration was called by the Communist and Phalangist parties, and joined by civil activists campaigning against corruption.

"We are going to topple any unjust government," vowed Naamat Badreddine, an activist with the group We Want Accountability.

The parliament has twice extended its own term over disagreements on how to hold elections. Polls are scheduled to take place in May, but top politicians have yet to give the green light. Parliament's original term expired in 2013.

The country suffers from daily power and water outages.

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