Lebanon’s New PM Begins Bid To Form Much-Delayed Cabinet

A handout picture provided by the Lebanese photo agency Dalati and Nohra shows Lebanon’s two-time premier Najib Mikati holds a press conference following his meeting with the president at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of the capital Beirut on July 26, 2021.

 

 

Lebanon’s new prime minister-designate Najib Mikati Tuesday held consultations with political parties that he said “unanimously” agreed on the need to put together a government quickly to rescue the crisis-hit country.

But after nearly a year of extreme drift, an economic crisis described by the World Bank as one of the world’s worst since the 1850s and continued squabbling among political players, he faces an uphill battle.

Mikati, a billionaire who has already twice served as prime minister, took on the task on Monday, days after fellow veteran politician Saad Hariri threw in the towel.

The last government resigned amid public outrage over a deadly explosion of hundreds of tonnes of poorly stored fertiliser at Beirut port last August.

The institutional vacuum is holding up a potential financial rescue plan for the country, which defaulted on its debt last year.

On Tuesday, Mikati met with top political parties, including the powerful Shiite Hezbollah movement and the Free Patriotic Movement founded by President Michel Aoun.

“There was unanimous agreement from all blocs and lawmakers on the need to speed up the process of cabinet formation,” Mikati said after consultations ended.

The meetings are the customary official step that follows a new prime minister’s designation, but the high-stakes horse-trading has yet to even begin.

– Scepticism –
Following a meeting with Mikati, Hezbollah lawmaker Mohammad Raad said his party is ready to “cooperate seriously” with the new PM designate.

FPM chief Gebran Bassil, accused by critics of repeatedly obstructing previous efforts to form a new government, said his party would stand aside this time.

We will “not to participate in the next cabinet, which means we will not get involved in the formation process”.

In an interview with the An-Nahar newspaper, Mikati vowed his lineup would be “purely technical” and tasked with bridging the gap to elections due next year.

Several lawmakers, including deputy speaker Elie Ferzli, backed this push on Tuesday.

“The government will consist of specialists,” Ferzli said. “As for the nominating process, it will rest on Mikati and his agreements with the president.”

The designation of 65-year-old Mikati, Lebanon’s richest man and to many a symbol of its corrupt oligarchy, was met with general scepticism.

A native of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city and one of its poorest, he was accused by a state prosecutor in 2019 of illicit enrichment, a charge he denies.

“How can I trust a thief who stole from me and my children and their future?” asked 57-year-old Beirut resident Mohammed Deeb, after Mikati’s designation.

“As long as this (political) class is still in power, nothing will change.”

On Sunday evening, dozens of protesters gathered outside Mikati’s Beirut home, accusing him of corruption and cronyism.

– Most aid blocked –
Lebanon’s former colonial ruler France and other Western governments stopped short of welcoming Mikati’s designation and simply urged him to swiftly deliver a competent lineup.

But Lebanon’s bickering politicians view Mikati as a consensus candidate, who may be capable of easing the near-year-long political deadlock.

Mikati, the third politician in a year to attempt the job, promised his government would work on implementing a French roadmap conditioning a huge aid package on reform and transparency.

In some of his first comments after his designation, Mikati said he would prioritise what little international aid is currently available towards addressing severe power blackouts, according to the Al-Akhbar newspaper.

Lebanon can no longer provide mains electricity to its citizens for more than a handful of hours each day, nor can it afford to buy the fuel needed to power generators.

Almost none of the international community’s demands for a broad programme of reforms have so far been met.

Further stalling the bankrupt state’s recapitalisation has been the government’s failure to engage the International Monetary Fund and discuss a fully-fledged rescue plan.

Until then, the monetary institution is due to send around $900 million, but experts warn it will not be enough and risks being misused.

Lebanon Protests Leave Nearly 20 Wounded – Charity

Demonstrators burn tires to block the Martyrs’ Square in the centre of Lebanon’s capital Beirut on June 26, 2021, as they protest against dire living conditions amidst the ongoing economical and political crisis. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

 

Nearly twenty people were wounded in overnight scuffles in northern Lebanon between security forces and protesters angered by a spiralling economic crisis, a medical association said on Sunday.

The protests in the city of Tripoli came as the Lebanese pound plumbed fresh lows on the black market due to a financial crisis that the World Bank says is likely to rank among the world’s worst since the mid-19th century.

Calm returned to the city on Sunday after protesters tried to storm official buildings, including a branch of the central bank, overnight, forcing the army to deploy.

“18 people, both civilians and soldiers, were injured, including four who were hospitalised,” said the Emergency and Relief Corps, a local medical charity that dispatched ambulances to treat the wounded.

Rubber bullets and shrapnel from stun grenades accounted for some of the injuries, a spokesperson for the charity told AFP.

READ ALSO: Thailand To Reimpose COVID-19 Curbs To Contain Outbreak

The army said 10 soldiers were wounded in the Tripoli clashes, the majority in a single incident that it said involved a group of protesters on motorcycles throwing stun grenades at personnel.

The southern city of Sidon and the capital Beirut saw smaller demonstrations against the ongoing dramatic fall in living standards.

The Lebanese pound, officially pegged to the dollar at 1,507 since 1997, traded at 17,300-17,500 to the dollar on the black market on Saturday — a record low.

Some social media users said it had fallen as low as 18,000, down from 15,000 earlier in the week.

The country is also grappling with a fuel crisis that has led to seemingly endless queues at gas pumps in recent weeks.

The price of fuel is expected to rise after the government said it would fund fuel imports at a rate of 3,900 Lebanese pounds to the dollar, instead of the official rate.

The move effectively reduces subsidies on fuel as the central bank tries to shore up fast-diminishing foreign currency reserves.

The financial collapse has sparked outrage at Lebanon’s political class, seen as woefully corrupt and unable to tackle the country’s many difficulties.

Lebanon has been without a fully functioning government since a massive blast in Beirut last summer that killed more than 200 people and ravaged swathes of the capital.

The government stepped down after the disaster, but efforts to agree on a new cabinet have repeatedly foundered.

AFP

Lebanon Protesters Clash With Security Forces As Currency Plunges

Demonstrators burn tires to block the Martyrs' Square in the centre of Lebanon's capital Beirut on June 26, 2021, as they protest against dire living conditions amidst the ongoing economical and political crisis. ANWAR AMRO / AFP
Demonstrators burn tires to block the Martyrs’ Square in the centre of Lebanon’s capital Beirut on June 26, 2021, as they protest against dire living conditions amidst the ongoing economical and political crisis. ANWAR AMRO / AFP

 

Lebanese protesters tried to storm central bank offices in two major cities on Saturday, state media reported, after the national currency plunged to a new record low on the black market.

The pound has been pegged to the dollar at 1,507 since 1997, but the country’s worst economic crisis in decades has seen its unofficial value plummet.

On Saturday, money changers told AFP it was trading at 17,300-17,500 to the greenback on the black market, while some social media users said it had fallen as low as 18,000.

Dozens of angry Lebanese took to the streets of the northern city of Tripoli to denounce the depreciation and “difficult living conditions”, the National News Agency reported.

Some protesters managed to break through the gates of a branch of the central bank and enter the courtyard, the NNA said, but the army prevented them from reaching the building.

Demonstrators also set fire to the entrance of a government office, an AFP correspondent said.

Others were seen trying to force their way into the homes of two lawmakers but were stopped by security forces.

The NNA said gunshots were heard outside the house of lawmaker Mohammed Kabbara and the army intervened to disperse protesters.

In the southern city of Sidon, protesters tried to storm another branch of the central bank only to be pushed back by security forces, the NNA reported.

Scattered protests also took place in the capital Beirut, where a small number of protesters took to the streets and burned tyres, an AFP correspondent said.

Lebanon has been roiled since autumn 2019 by an economic crisis the World Bank says is likely to rank among the world’s worst financial crises since the mid-19th century.

The collapse has sparked outrage at Lebanon’s political class, seen as woefully corrupt and unable to tackle the country’s many difficulties.

The pound’s dizzying depreciation comes as the eastern Mediterranean country grapples with shortages of medicine and fuel which are imported from abroad using foreign currency.

The country has been without a fully functioning government since a massive blast in Beirut last summer that killed more than 200 people and ravaged swathes of the capital.

The government stepped down after the disaster, but a deeply divided political class has since failed to agree on a new cabinet to replace it.

 

AFP

Lebanon Too Broke To Pay Soldiers Enough, Army Warns Ahead Of Donor Meet

(FILES) In this file photo taken on April 28, 2020 Lebanese army reinforcements arrive in the northern port city of Tripoli during clashes with protesters as anger over a spiralling economic crisis re-energised a months-old anti-government movement in defiance of a coronavirus lockdown.  (Photo by Ibrahim CHALHOUB / AFP)

 

Lebanon’s military needs aid to help its soldiers survive the financial crisis, an army source warned Wednesday, ahead of a UN-backed donor conference to shore up one of the bankrupt country’s key institutions.

Unlike previous conferences designed to provide training, weapons or equipment for Lebanon’s armed forces, the virtual meeting hosted by France on Thursday aims to offer the kind of humanitarian assistance usually reserved for countries grappling with conflict or natural disaster.

“We are in need of food parcels, healthcare assistance” and other support that comes on top of soldiers’ pay, a military source told AFP on condition of anonymity.

“The devaluation of the Lebanese pound is affecting soldiers and they are in need of support. Their salaries are not enough anymore.”

Lebanon’s economic crisis, which the World Bank has labelled as one of the world’s worst since the 1850s, has seen the local currency lose more than 90 percent of its value on the black market.

The crisis has eaten away at the value of soldiers’ salaries and slashed the military’s budget for maintenance and equipment, further threatening the country’s stability.

A regular soldier earns around 1.2 million Lebanese pounds a month — $800 at the official exchange rate, but only about $80 on the black market.

Already towards the middle of last year, the army said it had scrapped meat from the meals offered to on-duty soldiers, due to rising food prices.

– Milk, flour, medicine –
“We are doing the impossible to ease the suffering and the economic woes of our soldiers,” army chief Joseph Aoun said in a speech on Tuesday.

“We are forced to turn to allied states to secure aid, and I am ready to go to the end of the world to procure assistance so that the army can stay on its feet.”

Around 20 countries, including the United States, several EU member states, Gulf countries, Russia, and China have been invited to take part in the conference alongside UN representatives.

It follows a visit by Aoun last month to Paris, where he warned that the army could face even darker days without emergency support.

“The Lebanese army is going through a major crisis, which could get worse due to the deteriorating economic and social situation in Lebanon, which may worsen when subsidies are lifted,” he said.

He was referring to a government plan to scrap subsidies on essential goods such as fuel, food and flour to shore up dwindling foreign currency reserves.

A source close to French Defence Minister Florence Parly said Wednesday that the crisis was alarming as the Lebanese military is the “key institution” maintaining security in the country.

The army has highlighted “very specific needs” for milk, flour, medicine, fuel, and spare parts for maintenance, the source said.

– ‘Morale is low’ –
Aram Nerguizian, an expert on the Lebanese army at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Carnegie Middle East Center, said the military had already lost more than 3,000 members since 2019, dropping to a force of 80,874 at the start of this year.

“Morale is low, officers are increasingly demoralised,” he told AFP.

Nerguizian said donors could provide “in-kind assistance that helps LAF (army) personnel gain access to staple goods they would otherwise spend their now-severely diminished salaries on,” such as food, fuel, and medicine.

But aid that supports salaries is “more difficult”.

“For most of the LAF’s Western partners, there are laws and mechanisms in place specifically not to have aid used in that way,” Nerguizian said.

“Those systems are in place to prevent corruption, nepotism, and a twisted form of dependence on foreign aid for the current portion of national defence spending.”

The United States remains the biggest financial backer of the Lebanese military, and has bumped up funding for the army by $15 million for this year to $120 million.

France, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey are among the army’s main food donors, while Iraq and Spain have offered medical assistance.

Lebanon Announces Three -Day Lockdown Over Easter

 

 

Lebanese authorities on Friday announced a three-day lockdown over the Catholic Easter weekend in April to try to avoid another surge in coronavirus cases.

The country of over six million people has officially recorded more than 455,000 coronavirus cases and over 6,000 deaths.

Authorities announced a 24-hour curfew from April 3 until the morning of April 6 to cover the Catholic Easter holiday weekend.

The government’s coronavirus taskforce warned against “gatherings at home and in closed places… during the upcoming holidays”.

Orthodox Christians will celebrate Easter in early May, while Muslims will celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, in the middle of that month.

Coronavirus cases skyrocketed in Lebanon in January after authorities loosened restrictions during the end-of-year holiday season, allowing restaurants and nightclubs to remain open until 3:00 am, despite warnings from health professionals.

Hospitals were overwhelmed and authorities imposed drastic restrictions to stem the surge.

“Faced with an expected third wave of the pandemic… it is imperative to bolster hospital capacity, particularly in intensive care units,” President Michel Aoun said Friday.

Outgoing prime minister Hassan Diab said a new wave of infections “could be more dangerous than those that came before it”.

“Our concerns relate to being able to secure oxygen, electricity, medication and medical equipment during the serious financial crisis the country is facing,” he said.

Lebanon’s coronavirus outbreak has compounded its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

A local currency plunge has made medical imports, including oxygen, more expensive, leading to limited supplies.

The Syrian government Wednesday said it would supply 75 tonnes of oxygen to Lebanon in response to a request for Covid-19 assistance.

-AFP

Scores Injured In Third Night Of Clashes In Lebanon’s Tripoli

 

 

More than 200 people were hurt in the Lebanese city of Tripoli during a third night of clashes Wednesday between security forces and demonstrators angered by a coronavirus lockdown and severe economic crisis.

Protesters threw petrol bombs and stones towards security forces, who responded with tear gas, an AFP correspondent said.

The National News Agency said 226 people had been injured in the evening — 102 of them treated by the Lebanese Red Cross and another 124 by the Islamic Medical Association.

At least 66 people had been hospitalised.

On Twitter, the security forces reported nine injured among their ranks.

“We are here to demand food. People are hungry,” said 20-year-old protester Mohammed Ezzedine. “It’s time for people to take to the streets.”

Tripoli was already one of Lebanon’s poorest areas before the coronavirus pandemic piled new misery onto a chronic economic crisis.

Many of its residents have been left without an income since Lebanon imposed a full lockdown earlier this month in a bid to stem a surge in Covid-19 cases and prevent its hospitals from being overwhelmed.

A round-the-clock curfew is in force nationwide and grocery shopping is restricted to home deliveries, which are often unavailable in poorer areas.

Authorities have extended the lockdown by two weeks to February 8.

Protesters tried to enter a government building, while others gathered in the city’s central Al-Nour Square, the scene of mass demonstrations against the political class that began in late 2019.

‘Wretched conditions’

Gunfire was heard near the protest site, the AFP correspondent said, while demonstrators set fire to the entrance of a police building.

“We have made the decision to continue our action, whatever the cost… because we have nothing left to lose,” said a 25-year-old protester wearing a balaclava.

“We live in wretched conditions. I’ve knocked on every door but can’t find work,” he said.

After several hours of clashes, security forces deployed reinforcements to disperse the demonstrators and prevent them from storming the governorate’s headquarters.

But protesters remained in the neighbouring alleyways, where the clashes continued late into the night.

Demonstrators in other parts of the country also blocked major roads on Tuesday and Wednesday night.

In the capital Beirut, protesters burned tyres near the parliament, while others blocked the road to the sports stadium with dumpsters and more flaming tyres, the National News Agency said.

Night-time clashes in Tripoli between security forces and demonstrators had already injured at least 45 people on Tuesday and 30 on Monday, the Lebanese Red Cross said.

The army said 31 soldiers were hurt in Tuesday night’s exchange. It was not immediately clear how many soldiers were included in the Red Cross toll.

Lebanon has recorded over 289,000 Covid-19 cases and more than 2,500 deaths since the coronavirus pandemic began.

The surge in infections comes on top of the country’s worst economic crisis since its 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

Half of Lebanon’s population is now poor, and almost a quarter live in extreme poverty, the United Nations says.

Around half of the workforce lives off daily wages, the labour ministry estimates.

Authorities say they have started disbursing monthly payments of 400,000 Lebanese pounds (around $50 at the market rate) to some 230,000 families.

But caretaker social affairs minister Ramzi Musharrafieh acknowledged Tuesday that three-quarters of the population of more than six million needs financial assistance.

Coming after months of political crisis and mass anti-government demonstrations, the country’s Covid-19 response is being overseen by a caretaker administration.

The previous government had resigned after a massive explosion of ammonium nitrate fertiliser at Beirut’s port last summer killed 200 people, injured thousands and ravaged large parts of the capital.

AFP

Lebanon Enters Full Lockdown To Stem COVID-19 Uptick

ANWAR AMRO / AFP

 

Lebanon went into a tight lockdown Thursday, with residents barred even from grocery shopping and forced to rely on food deliveries as the country battles to slow spiking novel coronavirus cases.

The new restrictions were only loosely respected in some areas of the country, however, reflecting deep mistrust of a political elite held responsible for a deepening economic crisis.

The lockdown, ordered after some hospitals started to run out of intensive care beds, includes a 24-hour curfew until January 25.

Non-essential workers are barred from leaving their homes, and supermarkets are only allowed to operate by delivery.

Those needing an emergency exemption — to see a doctor, say — can request one via a text message or by filling in a form online.

In the capital, roads were quieter than usual, while non-essential shops remained shuttered. Security forces stopped drivers at several checkpoints in the centre of the city.

Security forces said compliance with the new measures stood at 94 percent.

But in some areas, some people ventured out to buy groceries.

As the lockdown went into force, authorities announced Thursday that 41 people had died of the coronavirus over the previous 24 hours, with 5,196 new infections registered.

– Heart attacks –

Recent days have seen Lebanon hit record daily Covid-19 caseloads in one of the steepest increases in transmission worldwide.

In Geitawi Hospital in Beirut on Thursday, director Pierre Yared said the emergencies department was brimming over with more than 30 people suffering from Covid-19 the previous day.

“The ER was filled with corona patients, there were no other patients,” he said.

Cases skyrocketed after authorities loosened restrictions during the holiday season, allowing restaurants and night clubs to remain open until 3:00 am, despite warnings from health professionals.

A partial lockdown in place since January 7 has failed to halt the spread of the virus.

Firass Abiad, the prominent director of the main state hospital treating Covid patients, warned the latest lockdown must not fail.

“In the last 24 hours alone, four Covid positive patients presented in cardiac arrest to our emergency room,” he wrote on Twitter.

“One of them was a 19 years old patient. This is serious.”

The new measures came into effect after caretaker health minister Hamad Hasan was admitted to hospital with Covid-19 late Wednesday, state media said.

The announcement on Monday raised fears of food shortages in impoverished and remote regions where deliveries are not readily available.

For several days, Lebanese have flooded supermarkets and chemists to stock up on supplies.

Some are worried the new restrictions will pile additional suffering on the country’s poorest.

– Political crisis –

Lebanon, a country of more than six million, was already grappling with its worst economic downturn in decades when the pandemic hit.

Previous lockdowns have forced businesses to close and deprived some, particularly informal day labourers, of income. Around half Lebanon’s population lives in poverty.

The World Bank Group on Tuesday approved a $246-million aid package to help 786,000 vulnerable Lebanese, but it is unclear when it will arrive.

Lebanon has recorded 237,132 cases since February last year, including 1,781 deaths.

Parliament is expected to convene Friday to examine a bill to allow the import and use of Covid-19 vaccines, which authorities have previously said will arrive in Lebanon by February.

Coming after months of political crisis and mass anti-government demonstrations, the country’s Covid-19 response is being overseen by a caretaker administration.

The previous government had resigned after a massive explosion of ammonium nitrate fertiliser at Beirut port last summer killed 200 people, wounded thousands and ravaged large parts of the capital.

A deeply divided political class has been unable to agree on a new cabinet to launch urgently needed reforms.

Israeli Strikes On Syria Kill 23 – Monitor

 

Israeli night raids targeting arms depots and military positions in eastern Syria killed at least seven Syrian soldiers and 16 allied fighters, in the deadliest raids since 2018, a war monitor said Wednesday.

The Israeli air force carried out more than 18 strikes against multiple targets in an area stretching from the eastern town of Deir Ezzor to the Iraqi border, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The raids killed seven Syrian soldiers and 16 non-Syrian militia fighters whose nationalities were not immediately known, the Britain-based monitoring group said.

Paramilitaries belonging to the Lebanese Hezbollah movement and the Fatimid Brigade, which is made up of pro-Iranian Afghan fighters, operate in the region, the Observatory said.

The raids also wounded 28 troops and militiamen, some of them critically.

The Israeli military did not immediately comment.

Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman called the Israeli raids the “deadliest since June 2018” when strikes on the same region killed at least 55 pro-government fighters, including Iraqis as well as Syrians.

In November, similar raids on eastern Syria killed at least 19 pro-Iran militia fighters, the monitor said.

The Syrian state news agency SANA reported the latest strikes but gave few details.

“At 1:10 am (2310 GMT Tuesday), the Israeli enemy carried out an aerial assault on the town of Deir Ezzor and the Albu Kamal region,” SANA said, citing a military source.

“The results of the aggression are currently being verified,” it added.

It was the second wave of Israeli raids in Syria in less than a week.

The last strikes on January 7 targeted positions in southern Syria and in the southern outskirts of the capital Damascus, killing three pro-Iran fighters.

Israel routinely carries out raids in Syria, mostly against targets linked to Iran in what it says is a bid to prevent its arch foe from consolidating a foothold on its northern border.

Israel hit around 50 targets in Syria in 2020, according to an annual report released in late December by the Israeli military.

Israel has carried out hundreds of air and missile strikes on Syria since civil war broke out in 2011, targeting Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah forces as well as Syrian government troops.

Israel rarely acknowledges individual strikes but has done so when responding to what it describes as aggression inside Israeli territory.

The war in Syria has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced millions more since it erupted after the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

AFP

Lebanon Police Scuffle With Students Protesting Tuition Increase

Lebanese students protest a decision by top universities to adopt a new dollar exchange rate to price tuition in Beirut’s Hamra district on December 19, 2020. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

 

Lebanese riot police on Saturday scuffled with students protesting a decision by top universities to adopt a new dollar exchange rate to price tuition — equivalent to a major fee hike.

Near the entrance of the American University of Beirut (AUB) in the city’s Hamra district, security forces fired tear gas to disperse protesters who were trying to approach the main gate.

Students responded by throwing water bottles and other objects at riot police blocking their path.

It was not immediately clear if there were any injuries.

The protest came in response to a decision by AUB and the Lebanese American University (LAU), another top private institution, to price tuition based on an exchange rate of 3,900 Lebanese pounds to the dollar.

The nosediving currency is still officially pegged at around 1,500 pounds to the greenback.

The move has prompted fears that other universities could follow suit, potentially leading to an exodus of students from private institutions while public universities remain underfunded and overstretched.

Hundreds of students had gathered in Hamra earlier Saturday in a protest they billed a “student day of rage”.

They chanted anti-government slogans and called for affordable education in a country mired in its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

 

The protest came in response to a decision by AUB and the Lebanese American University (LAU), another top private institution, to price tuition based on an exchange rate of 3,900 Lebanese pounds to the dollar. Near the entrance of the American University of Beirut (AUB) in the city’s Hamra district, security forces fired tear gas to disperse protesters who were trying to approach the main gate. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

 

Later in the evening, some torched dumpsters to block the street and vandalised banks before security forces pushed them out.

Over the past year, the Lebanese pound has lost up to 80 percent of its value on the black market, where on Saturday the dollar was selling for at least 8,200 pounds.

Universities have struggled to adapt to the de facto devaluation as prices nationwide have soared.

Commercial banks have halted dollar transactions and restricted withdrawals of Lebanese pounds, in moves that have starved many of their savings.

According to the United Nations, more than half of Lebanon’s population is now living in poverty.

Hezbollah Fugitive Killer Of Former Lebanon PM Hariri Bags Life Sentence

 

A file photo of a court gavel.

 

A UN-backed court on Friday sentenced fugitive Hezbollah member Salim Ayyash to life imprisonment for the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri.

“The trial chamber is satisfied that it should impose the maximum sentence for each of the five crimes of life imprisonment to be served concurrently,” said Judge David Re of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, based in the Netherlands.

More to follow . . .

Lebanon PM Diab, Ex-Ministers Indicted Over Port Blast

A handout picture provided by the Lebanese photo agency Dalati and Nohra on May 21, 2020 shows Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab speaking during a press conference at the governmental palace in the capital Beirut. DALATI AND NOHRA / AFP.

 

Lebanon’s lead investigator into the catastrophic Beirut port explosion charged outgoing premier Hassan Diab and three ex-ministers with negligence on Thursday, a judicial source said.

They are the first politicians to be indicted over the devastating August 4 blast that killed more than 200 people, disfigured the heart of the capital and stoked a wave of public anger against Lebanon’s ruling elite.

The four were charged with “negligence and causing death to hundreds and injuries to thousands more” in the first such official indictment against a prime minister in office in Lebanese history, the judicial source said.

After the blast, it emerged top security officials and politicians had known for years about hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser stored haphazardly at the Beirut port but had failed to take precautionary measures.

The decision by judge Fadi Sawan came after the investigation confirmed the suspects had received “several written notices warning them against postponing the disposal of ammonium nitrate fertiliser,” the source said.

“They also did not take the necessary measures to avoid the devastating explosion and its enormous damage,” added the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak on the issue.

 

A Lebanese couple inspects the damage to their house in an area overlooking the destroyed Beirut port on August 5, 2020 in the aftermath of a massive explosion in the Lebanese capital. (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP)

 

Diab, who resigned in the wake of the August 4 explosion, already testified before Sawan in September.

His office on Thursday said the outgoing premier’s conscience was clear.

“He is confident that his hands are clean and that he has handled the Beirut Port blast file in a responsible and transparent manner,” it said in a statement.

– Judge to question suspects –
The other senior officials charged are former finance minister Ali Hasan Khalil and the ex-ministers of public works Yusef Fenianos and Ghazi Zaiter.

The United States in September slapped sanctions on Khalil and Fenianos for alleged corruption and support of the powerful Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement.

READ ALSO: Suicide Car Bomb Kills 26 Afghan Security Personnel

In a letter to parliament late last month, judge Sawan asked lawmakers to investigate several outgoing and former ministers, including Khalil, Fenianos and Zaiter, over the blast.

The letter came after Sawan’s investigations raised “certain suspicions about the responsibility of those ministers and their failure towards addressing the presence of the ammonium nitrate at the port”.

The judicial source Thursday said parliament had not responded to Sawan’s request, prompting him to press charges.

Sawan will begin questioning the suspects from Monday, the source said.

Diab on Thursday told Sawan he respected the rule of law, but accused the judge of bypassing parliament and said he had already “provided all the information he had regarding this file”.

The investigation has so far triggered the arrest of 25 people, including top port and customs officials.

Lebanese officials have rejected an international probe, despite demands both at home and abroad for an impartial investigation.

Experts from France and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation took part in the preliminary investigation.

– Decades of negligence –
Public anger has simmered over the pace of the investigation, which had until Thursday spared top political officials widely accused for the country’s worst peace-time disaster.

Lebanese on social media cautiously welcomed the charges, but urged more to be done.

“All this could remain a mere attempt to calm public opinion unless it comes with serious investigations into the responsibility of these and other ministers who have not yet been summoned,” Lebanese rights group Legal Agenda wrote on Twitter.

Many blame the blast on decades of negligence and corruption by the country’s ruling elite, who include former warlords from the 1975-1990 civil war.

On July 20, Diab and President Michel Aoun had both received a report from the State Security agency warning of the danger posed by the highly unstable material at the port.

After the explosion, the agency confirmed it had alerted authorities in a detailed report quoting a chemical expert who had visited the warehouse.

If ignited, the ammonium nitrate would cause a huge explosion that would be especially destructive to the port, warned the report seen by AFP.

The Beirut Bar Association has handed the public prosecutor hundreds of criminal complaints from victims of the explosion.

Lebanon is mired in its worst economic crisis in decades, but its divided political class has for months failed to agree on a new cabinet to implement desperately needed reforms.

Saad Hariri, who stepped down as premier last year following mass anti-government protests, is set to make a comeback after he was tasked to form a government in October.

AFP

Lebanon Starts Two-Weeks Of Restrictions To Curb COVID-19 Cases

 


ANWAR AMRO / AFP

 

Lebanon started a new two-week lockdown Saturday after coronavirus infections crossed the 100,000 mark in a country where hospital capacity has become saturated.

The capital’s roads were largely empty and police checkpoints had been set up at several locations, while the seaside promenade often thronging on weekends was deserted, an AFP photographer said.

The airport however remained open, as did essential businesses.

Under the measures announced, during the day people were to stay home unless they were granted an exception, and only cars with certain number plates were allowed on the roads.

A nighttime curfew was to come into force from 5:00 pm (1500 GMT) to 5:00 am (0300 GMT).

Lebanon, with a population of around six million, has been recording some 11,000 coronavirus infections on average each week, the health ministry said Thursday.

Since February, the country has recorded 102,607 Covid-19 cases, including 796 deaths, it says.

A first country-wide lockdown imposed in March was effective in stemming the spread of the virus, and restrictions were gradually lifted as summer beckoned people outdoors.

But the number of coronavirus cases surged following a monstrous blast at Beirut’s port on August 4 which killed more than 200 people, wounded at least 6,500, and overwhelmed hospitals.

The new restrictions are set to last until November 30 but the authorities have said they could be extended, as they fear the health system would not be able to cope with many more cases needing intensive care.

“The situation is critical and getting worse,” Said al-Asmar, a pulmonologist at the main public hospital in Beirut dealing with Covid-19 cases, warned on Friday.

Sometimes, “patients need intensive care, but we have to leave them in accident and emergency,” the doctor at the Rafik Hariri Hospital told AFP.

The World Health Organization said at the end of October that 88 percent of Lebanon’s 306 intensive care beds were occupied.

On Thursday, Qatar sent two planes carrying medical equipment to Lebanon to equip field hospitals in the southern city of Tyre and the northern city of Tripoli, each with 500 beds, the Qatari embassy in Beirut said.

-AFP