Lebanese protesters angered by a spiralling economic crisis clashed with security forces in the country’s north overnight as a months-old anti-government movement gained new momentum despite a coronavirus lockdown.
A 26-year-old protester died on Tuesday from a bullet wound he had sustained during the confrontations between the army and hundreds of demonstrators that rocked Lebanon’s second city of Tripoli.
Sixty people were injured, including some 40 soldiers, during the 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.
The overnight violence was the latest in a string of anti-government protests and social unrest fuelled by unprecedented inflation that this week saw a free-falling Lebanese pound reach record lows against the dollar.
Angered by the financial collapse, demonstrators across Lebanon have rallied, blocked roads and vandalised banks for two days, 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, a 41-year-old protester, told AFP from Tripoli, adding that he could no longer support his three children since he lost his job selling motorcycle spare parts.
– ‘Social explosion’ –
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 more.
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.
“No reform measures have been taken,” Sami Nader, director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, told AFP.
The only major step taken has been the suspension of Eurobond debt payments, he said, referring to a March announcement by the government that it would default on its sovereign debt for the first time due to dwindling foreign currency reserves.
With no clear government plan to exit the crisis, Nader said, Lebanon is heading “towards an inevitable social explosion”.
– Bank attacks –
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.
It said 40 soldiers were wounded and nine people were arrested.
In a later statement, it expressed “regret” at the death of Fawaz al-Samman who died after being hit in the thigh with a bullet.
His sister Fatima told AFP that she blames the army, which said it would open an investigation into the death.
The Association of Lebanese Banks said that commercial banks would be closed in Tripoli on Tuesday because of “attacks and acts of vandalism”.
In Beirut, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a bank before dawn, according to the official National News Agency.
In the southern city of Sidon, protesters threw stones and fire crackers at the central bank headquarters late Monday, the NNA said.
Late Saturday, assailants lobbed an explosive device at a bank in Sidon.
The attack came a day after Prime Minister Hassan 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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