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article imageLebanese protesters back on the streets as economy crumbles

By Jana Dhayby with Layal Abou Rahal in Beirut (AFP)     Apr 28, 2020 in World

Lebanese protesters confronted army troops for a second day Tuesday as anger over a spiralling economic crisis re-energised a months-old anti-government movement in defiance of a coronavirus lockdown.

Scuffles resumed in second city Tripoli in northern Lebanon as protesters hurled rocks at security forces who fired a volley of tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the demonstrators.

The violence came after a protester died on Tuesday from a bullet wound he had sustained during overnight confrontations between troops and hundreds of demonstrators in Tripoli.

Following the funeral of 26-year-old Fawaz al-Samman in the city's central Al-Nour Square, demonstrators went on the rampage, torching and vandalising banks and military vehicles.

Lebanese anti-government protesters smash the facade of a bank
Lebanese anti-government protesters smash the facade of a bank

Sixty people were injured, including some 40 soldiers, during the overnight exchange which saw protesters throw stones at troops who fired live rounds into the air to try to disperse the angry crowds under clouds of tear gas.

Tuesday's confrontations were the latest in a string of anti-government protests and social unrest fuelled by unprecedented inflation and a free-falling Lebanese pound that reached record lows against the dollar this week.

Angered by the financial collapse, demonstrators have rallied across Lebanon, blocking roads and attacking banks, re-energising a protest movement launched in October against a political class the activists deem inept and corrupt.

"I came down to raise my voice against hunger, poverty and rising prices," Khaled, 41, told AFP, saying he had lost his job selling motorcycle parts and could no longer support his three children.

- 'Increasingly desperate' -

People inspect a bank set ablaze overnight by protesters in Tripoli
People inspect a bank set ablaze overnight by protesters in Tripoli

Lebanon is mired in its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, now compounded by a nationwide lockdown to stem the spread of the coronavirus which has killed 24 people and infected almost 700 others.

The Lebanese pound has lost more than half of its value on the black market, where it traded at a record low of around 4,000 pounds to the dollar this week.

Economy Minister Raoul Nehme on Tuesday said that prices have risen by 55 per cent, while the government estimates that 45 per cent of the population now lives below the poverty line.

This has unleashed a public outcry against a government that has yet to deliver a long awaited rescue plan to shore up the country's finances more than three months since it was nominated to address the crisis.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab acknowledged that living conditions have "deteriorated at a record speed" but said on Tuesday he would not tolerate "riots" and that perpetrators would be held accountable.

UN envoy to Lebanon Jan Kubis said that the "tragic" events in Tripoli send a "warning signal".

"This is the time to provide material support to increasingly desperate, impoverished and hungry majority of Lebanese" he said in a post on Twitter.

- 'Social explosion' -

Lebanon's economic crises, compounded by unprecedented inflation and a record devaluation of the pound, has forced large chunks of the population into unemployment.

Lebanese protesters chant slogans in front of the building of the central bank in Beirut on April 23
Lebanese protesters chant slogans in front of the building of the central bank in Beirut on April 23

A kilo of meat which used to sell at 18,000 Lebanese pounds ($12 at the official rate) now costs 32,000 (around $22) while the price of vegetables has doubled.

With no clear government plan to exit the crisis, Lebanon is heading "towards an inevitable social explosion" Sami Nader, director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, told AFP.

Public anger has been increasingly directed at banks which are accused by protesters of helping a corrupt political class drive the country towards bankruptcy.

Lebanese banks, many of which are owned by prominent politicians, have since September imposed restrictions on dollar withdrawals and transfers, forcing the public to deal in the nose-diving Lebanese pound.

Since March, banks have stopped dollar withdrawals altogether, further fuelling public anger.

In Tripoli, the army accused demonstrators overnight of torching three banks, destroying several ATM machines and attacking an army patrol and military vehicle.

The Association of Lebanese Banks said that commercial banks would be closed in Tripoli on Tuesday because of "attacks and acts of vandalism".

In the capital Beirut, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a bank before dawn and dozens of protesters gathered at a flyover to express solidarity with their counterparts in Tripoli.

In the southern city of Sidon, protesters threw stones and fire crackers at the central bank headquarters late Monday, state media said.

Late Saturday, assailants lobbed an explosive device at a bank in Sidon.

The attack came a day after Diab said Lebanese bank deposits had plunged $5.7 billion in the first two months of the year, despite curbs on withdrawals and a ban on transfers abroad.

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