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France, US urge Lebanese politicians to quickly form Cabinet

France, US urge Lebanese politicians to quickly form Cabinet

France and the U.S. are urging Lebanese politicians to quickly form a Cabinet while leaders in Paris announced an international conference next month in support of Lebanon’s populationBy BASSEM MROUE Associated PressJuly 16, 2021, 9:39 AM• 3 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleBEIRUT — Seeking to stabilize Lebanon after a series of crises, France and the U.S. on Friday called on Lebanese politicians to urgently form a Cabinet and planned an international conference to support the effort.“All concerned parties need to work with urgency to put in place a government that’s able to implement reforms immediately,” tweeted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.The announcements came at a moment of great uncertainty after Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri stepped down over disagreements with the president on the shape of the Cabinet. He did not name anyone to take the post. Hundreds of his supporters rioted in the streets, blocked major roads and hurled stones. On Friday morning, Lebanon’s pound hit new lows reaching 23,400 to the dollar on the black market.President Michel Aoun was expected to call for consultations with heads of parliamentary blocs. The person who gets the most support will be asked to work on forming a new Cabinet.In the U.S., the Biden administration expressed disappointment that Lebanese political leaders have squandered the last nine months since Hariri was named.France, once Lebanon’s colonial ruler, has been urging Lebanese political leaders to quickly form a government whose job will be to implemented badly needed reforms and fight corruption that has brought Lebanon to near bankruptcy.France’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said the latest development confirms the political deadlock in which “Lebanese leaders have deliberately held the country back for months, even as it sinks into an unprecedented economic and social crisis.”The ministry said that there is now “an absolute urgency to come out of this organized and unacceptable obstruction.” It added that France, with the support of the United Nations, was calling an international conference Aug. 4.The date marks the first anniversary of a massive explosion at Beirut’s port that killed more than 200, wounded over 6,000 and damaged entire neighborhoods in the capital. The blast was caused by the ignition of hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive fertilizer that had been stored for years there with the knowledge of top government officials.Lebanon has been without a full-functioning government since the Cabinet of Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned days after the blast.Since the blast, French President Emmanuel Macron visited Lebanon twice and urged Lebanese politicians to quickly form a Cabinet to implement reforms. Earlier this week, a French minister visiting Lebanon said Paris will soon begin imposing sanctions on politicians blocking the formation of a government.France hosted an economic conference for Lebanon in April 2018 that promised investments and loans worth billions of dollars in return for reforms. The funds were never released as the political class blamed for decades of corruption and mismanagement continued with business as usual.————Associated Press writer Angela Charlton contributed to this report from Paris.

Families of Beirut blast victims want officials prosecuted

Families of Beirut blast victims want officials prosecuted

Families of the victims of last year’s massive blast at Beirut’s port have rallied in the Lebanese capital to pressure parliament to lift immunity of three lawmakersBy BASSEM MROUE Associated PressJuly 9, 2021, 6:00 PM• 2 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleBEIRUT — Families of the victims of last year’s massive blast at Beirut’s port protested in the Lebanese capital on Friday to pressure parliament to lift immunity of three legislators. The judge investigating the explosion had requested such a step.One of the protests took place near the residency of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, where the legislature’s justice committee was meeting over the immunity request. Lebanese troops pushed the protesters back from the tightly secured building.Many Lebanese blame the country’s ruling elites for negligence that led to the port explosion.“You blew up Beirut and put people in coffins,” read a banner carried by one of the protesters.According to the deputy parliament speaker, Elie Ferzli, the committee decided to first ask the judge to review the evidence against the three before deciding on the immunity.Last week, Judge Tarek Bitar announced he intends to pursue senior politicians and former and current security chiefs in the case, and requested permission for their prosecution.Hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material used in fertilizers that had been improperly stored in the port for years, exploded on Aug. 4, killing 211 people, injuring more than 6,000 and devastating nearby neighborhoods.“Shame on them. They are bringing riot police to face the families of martyrs,” shouted Ibrahim Hoteit, whose brother of Tharwat Hoteit was killed in the blast.Last Friday, Bitar asked the government and the interior ministry for permission to question two of Lebanon’s most prominent security chiefs, including the head of General Security Directorate, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim.Interior Minister Mohamed Fehmi reportedly rejected the request on Friday. Ibrahim issued a statement saying he abides by the law but that someone is trying to tarnish his image.Family members of the victims later Friday also held a rally outside the Interior Ministry, to protest Fehmi’s decision.

Lebanese judge goes after top officials over port blast

Lebanese judge goes after top officials over port blast

BEIRUT — The Lebanese judge leading the investigation into last year’s massive explosion at Beirut’s port announced Friday he intends to pursue senior politicians and former and current security chiefs in the case, and requested permission for their prosecution, state media reported.The move — two days before the 11-month anniversary of the horrific blast — was praised by families of the victims and survivors as a bold step by Bitar, whose predecessor was removed following legal challenges by two former ministers he had accused of negligence that led to the explosion.Judge Tarek Bitar confirmed charges filed by his predecessor against outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab and summoned him for questioning, National News Agency reported. He did not set a date.Bitar also asked the government and the interior ministry for permission to question two of Lebanon’s most prominent security chiefs — the head of General Security Directorate, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, and the head of State Security, Maj. Gen. Tony Saliba.Separately, he asked parliament to lift immunity for two legislators who were charged by his predecessor, and a former interior minister. Bitar also filed charges against former army commander Gen. Jean Kahwaji and former head of military intelligence Brig. Gen. Kameel Daher, as well as two other retired intelligence generals, and said he will also be pursuing judges.Nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material used in fertilizers that had been improperly stored in the port for years, exploded on Aug. 4, killing 211 people, injuring more than 6,000 and devastating nearby neighborhoods.The blast was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded and was the most destructive single incident in Lebanon’s troubled history.William Noon, whose brother, Joe, a firefighter, was killed while extinguishing the massive fire that led to the port blast, said Bitar was starting to deliver on his promises.“Today I felt that there is hope and that we are going somewhere,” he told The Associated Press, adding that the charges filed by Bitar were similar to those of his predecessor, an indication that those persons were apparently to blame.Noon, however, said he expected interference from politicians, adding that the families plan to take to the streets if Bitar is not allowed to carry on with his work.“Judge Tarek Bitar has taken a very courageous decision,” wrote Lebanese lawyer and activist Nizar Saghieh on Twitter. “He is opening again the battle of (lifting) immunities against influential people.”It was not immediately clear if Diab would accept to be questioned by Bitar, after declining to be interrogated by the former prosecutor, Fadi Sawwan, last December. In an interview with the AP late last year, Diab, who had resigned following the explosion, said he was being singled out and charged while others knew more, calling it “diabolical.”He formally asked parliament to lift immunity of three lawmakers: former Finance Minster Ali Hassan Khalil, former Minister of Public Works Ghazi Zeiter and former Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk. He also asked the bar association for permission to question former Public Works Minister Youssef Fenianos.NNA said they will be questioned over possible intentional crimes of killing and negligence. Families of the victims and survivors of the blast have accused the ruling political class of corruption and negligence that led to the explosion of ammonium nitrates,Khalil and Zeiter are members of the bloc of Lebanon’s powerful Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and along with Fenianos are strong allies of the group Hezbollah.Khalil and Zeiter issued a joint statement later Friday saying they heard about the request by the judge through the media, adding that they are both ready for questioning. They said they are willing to be questioned — even before permission is issued by parliament and their immunity lifted — in order “to help in reaching the truth and specify responsibilities regarding this crime.”Bitar was named to lead the investigation in February after Sawwan was removed following legal challenges by senior officials he had accused of negligence that led to the blast.In mid-April, Bitar ordered the release of six people, including security officers, who had been detained for months. Among those released was an officer who had written a detailed warning to top officials prior to the explosion about the dangers of the material stored at the port.

Gunmen take to streets in Lebanese city over economic crisis

Gunmen take to streets in Lebanese city over economic crisis

Gunmen have taken to the streets in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli, firing in the air and at times throwing stones at soldiers amid rising anger at power cuts, fuel shortages and soaring pricesBy BASSEM MROUE Associated PressJune 30, 2021, 4:40 PM• 3 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleBEIRUT — Gunmen took to the streets in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Wednesday, firing in the air and at times throwing stones at soldiers amid rising anger at power cuts, fuel shortages and soaring prices.The anger was fueled by rumors that a young girl died after electricity cuts stopped a machine that supplied her with oxygen. A Lebanese security official denied the rumors and reports on social media about the girl. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest and most impoverished city, has witnessed acts of violence in recent days linked to the country’s severe economic and financial crisis. The World Bank has described the crisis as one of the worst the world has witnessed over the past 150 years. It is coupled with a political deadlock that has left Lebanon without a government since August.The economic crisis has been the most serious threat to Lebanon’s stability since the 15-year civil war ended in 1990. Tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs since October 2019 in the small nation of 6 million, including a million Syrian refugees.Lebanon’s 20-month economic and financial crisis has led to severe shortages in fuel, medicine and medical products. Electricity cuts last for much of the day and lack of diesel has led the owners of some private generators to cease supplying power.After the rumors spread in Tripoli on Wednesday, armed men deployed in the streets of some poor neighborhoods and opened fire in the air. Soldiers briefly pulled out from some areas, apparently to avoid a clash with the gunmen.Later in the day, the army patrolled the areas that witnessed gunfire, state-run National News Agency reported.A Tripoli resident told The Associated Press that he closed his shop and went home when the shooting started, adding that it lasted for about four hours. Later in the afternoon, shooting was heard again in the city.Hundreds of people have tried to migrate to Europe from northern Lebanon due to harsh economic conditions over the past two years and some have died before reaching their destination.In the capital Beirut, protesters closed several roads Wednesday to express their anger over harsh living conditions.Riots in Tripoli over the weekend left at least 20 people injured, half of them soldiers.The army on Sunday said rioters on motorcycles threw stun grenades at troops in Tripoli injuring nine soldiers, while another was injured when hit by a rock. Protesters attacked several state institutions in the city.In recent years, Tripoli has witnessed rounds of fighting between supporters and opponents of Syria’s government.

Economic crisis, severe shortages make Lebanon 'unlivable'

Economic crisis, severe shortages make Lebanon 'unlivable'

BEIRUT — Ibrahim Arab waits in line several hours a day in the hot summer sun to buy gas for his taxi.When he’s not working, the 37-year-old father of two drives from one Beirut pharmacy to another, looking for baby formula for his 7-month-old son — any he can find — even though the infant got severe diarrhea and vomiting from an unfamiliar brand.He worries what would happen if his children got really sick. Once among the best in the region, Lebanon’s hospitals are struggling amid the country’s economic and financial crisis that has led to daily power outages that last for hours, shortages of diesel fuel for backup generators, and a lack of medical equipment and drugs.After 20 months of suffering with no end in sight, a new reality is setting in for most of Lebanon’s estimated 6 million people: Days filled with severe shortages — from spare parts for cars to medicine, fuel and other basic goods in the import-dependent country.“My life was already difficult, and now the gasoline crisis only made things worse,” Arab said on a recent day. To survive, he works a second job at a Beirut grocery store, but his monthly income in Lebanese pounds has lost 95% of its purchase power.The crisis, which began in late 2019, is rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement by a post-civil war political class that has accumulated debt and done little to encourage local industries, forcing the country to rely on imports for almost everything.The Lebanese pound has nose-dived, banks have clamped down on withdrawals and transfers, and hyperinflation has flared.The liquidity crunch is crippling the government’s ability to provide fuel, electricity and basic services. A shortage of dollars is gutting imports of medical supplies and energy.The fuel shortage has especially raised fears that the country could become paralyzed. Even private generators, used by the Lebanese for decades, have to be switched off for hours to conserve diesel.“We are really in hell,” tweeted Firas Abiad, director general of Rafik Hariri University Hospital, which leads the country’s coronavirus fight. Despite a heat wave, the hospital decided Monday to turn off the air conditioning, except in medical departments.Electricity cuts have affected internet connections in various cities, while bakeries warn they might have to close due to fuel shortages.The situation has become critical in recent weeks, with scuffles and shootings at gas pumps, including one in the northern city of Tripoli, where the son of one station’s owner was killed.Many Lebanese decry their leaders’ inability or unwillingness to work together to resolve the crisis.The country has been without a working government since Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s Cabinet resigned days after the massive explosion at Beirut’s port on Aug. 4, 2020, that killed 211 people and injured more than 6,000. The catastrophic blast was caused by nearly 3,000 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate that had been improperly stored there for years.Residents expect the economy to get even worse, so they look for ways to adapt and cope.To avoid waiting for hours, some pay people to fill their car for them. Others take their laptops and work from inside their vehicles in the lines that stretch for blocks and are known as “the queues of humiliation.”Many rely on relatives and friends abroad to send medicine and baby formula. Those who can afford it fly to nearby countries for a day or two to stock up for months.A man who works in solar energy said business is booming, with people fed up with decades of government promises to fix Lebanon’s power grid.Last week, Diab approved financing energy imports at a rate higher than the official exchange rate, effectively reducing fuel subsidies amid the worsening shortages. The move that took effect Tuesday is expected to start easing the crisis temporarily, although prices shot up 35%.Some people have been hoarding fuel out of fear that prices will nearly double, and this has added to its scarcity. Such an increase in prices will put the cost of fuel out of reach of many in a country where more than half the population lives in poverty.Others smuggle it to neighboring Syria, which has its own fuel crisis and where the price of gasoline is five times higher than in Lebanon. But that also adds to the shortage in Lebanon.The crisis has led angry residents across the country to block roads in protest.They seized several tanker trucks in northern Lebanon and distributed gasoline for free to passersby. Another group confiscated a truck carrying powdered milk and also distributed its contents.“Our business has become a job of mass destruction,” said Ahed Makarem, 24, who works at a gas station in the coastal village of Damour, south of Beirut.As he spoke, a line of hundreds of cars moved slowly along the highway. Dozens of workers activated the station’s 12 pumps to fill vehicles and scooters. Motorists were limited to 20 liters (about 5 1/4 gallons).Makarem said his 13-hour shift starts at 6 a.m. and he hardly has time to eat or sit. Fistfights have broken out in recent weeks as some people try to cut in line, he said, adding that when the station closes at 7 p.m., police sometimes have to intervene to turn away angry customers who waited in vain.Many fear things will only get worse in the coming months, with the central bank’s reserves dropping and no solution in sight. Lawmakers are working on a ration card system that would give about 500,000 poor families between $93 and $137 a month. If approved, it would lead to even smaller subsidies and skyrocketing prices.Arab, the taxi driver, is bracing for when the temporary solutions fall away and the crisis worsens.He recently had to fix the brakes on his car, and his engine needed a spare part. That cost him more than twice the minimum monthly wage in Lebanon.“I wish I had the opportunity to leave. This country is unlivable,” Arab said.

Lebanon increases fuel prices by more than 35% amid crisis

Lebanon increases fuel prices by more than 35% amid crisis

Lebanon’s energy ministry has increased gasoline and fuel prices by 35%, a move that could lead to a sharp increase in prices of most commodities in the crisis-hit countryBy BASSEM MROUE Associated PressJune 29, 2021, 3:52 PM• 4 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleBEIRUT — Lebanon’s energy ministry Tuesday increased gasoline and fuel prices by 35%, a move that could lead to a sharp increase in prices of most commodities in the crisis-hit country.The hike came days after caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab granted approval for financing fuel imports at a rate higher than the official exchange rate, effectively reducing critical fuel subsidies.Lebanon is going through an unprecedented economic and financial collapse, coupled with a monthslong political deadlock over the formation of a new government.The developments pose the gravest threat to the small country’s stability since the end of its civil war three decades ago. The World Bank has said the crisis is among the worst the world has seen in 150 years.Fistfights and shootings have erupted at some gas stations over the past weeks as frustrated citizens lined up for hours to fill up their tanks and the shortages have led to protests around Lebanon.Electricity cuts last for much of the day, and people have had to turn off private generators for several hours to ration fuel. Last week, the economy ministry raised the price of subsidized bread by 18%, the fifth time it was raised in a year.The price of gasoline, which in Lebanon is calculated for 20 liters (about 5 1/2 gallons) reached 62,000 Lebanese pounds at the 35% increase, or about $3.60 according to black market rates. Despite the hike, motorists still lined up at gas stations Tuesday to fill their tanks. Diesel increased 38%, to 46,100 pounds — about $2.70 on the black market.Fuel distributors representative Fadi Abu Shakra urged calm. He was quoted by the Lebanese state news agency, NNA, as saying that six fuel tankers began offloading oil products after midnight on Monday to ease demands.The Lebanese pound hit a new low over the weekend, selling at 18,000 pounds to the dollar on the black market. The pound has lost more than 90% of its value since the crisis began with nationwide protests against the country’s political class in late 2019.There are several exchange rates — including the official rate that still stands at 1,507 pounds to the dollar. Two other exchange rates, both authorized by the Central Bank, are 3,900 pounds to the dollar for withdrawals from bank accounts and 12,000 pounds for $1 for imports of several products. On the black market, the dollar is selling for nearly 18,000 pounds.The decree signed by Diab on Friday allows the financing of fuel imports at an exchange rate price of 3,900 pounds.There was a temporary relief from the country’s power supply shortages. On Tuesday, a Turkish company that provides electricity to Lebanon from two power barges said it will resume supplies. The move comes six weeks after it shut down operations over delayed payments and the threat of legal action against its vessels.The decision by Karpowership is expected to increase electricity supply by about four to six hours a day.“This is a goodwill gesture,” Karpowership said in a statement to The Associated Press. It said it is still looking for a solution with Lebanese authorities to outstanding payments.Karpowership had said it is owed 18 months of overdue payments totaling in excess of $100 million. Last month, a Lebanese prosecutor threatened to seize the ships, pending an investigation into corruption and graft allegations. The company has called those accusations baseless.The crisis, rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement, has worsened in recent weeks with the central bank cutting back on financing imports at subsidized dollars. Foreign currency reserves have dropped dangerously low, from $30 billion at the start of the crisis, to nearly $15 billion currently. That has prompted merchants to either raise prices or stop imports.

EU threatens Lebanese politicians with sanctions over crisis

EU threatens Lebanese politicians with sanctions over crisis

The European Union’s foreign policy chief has berated Lebanese politicians for delays in forming a new Cabinet, warning the union could impose sanctions on those behind the political stalemate in the crisis-hit countryBy BASSEM MROUE Associated PressJune 19, 2021, 10:25 AM• 3 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleBEIRUT — The European Union’s foreign policy chief Saturday berated Lebanese politicians for delays in forming a new Cabinet, warning the union could impose sanctions on those behind the political stalemate in the crisis-hit country.Josep Borrell made his comments at the presidential palace near the capital Beirut after meeting with President Michel Aoun. It was the first meeting in a two-day visit to Lebanon.Borrell’s comments came amid reports in Lebanese media that France and the EU are putting together proposals for possible travel bans and freezes on assets of some politicians.Borrell said Lebanese politicians should quickly form a new government, implement reforms and reach a deal with the International Monetary Fund to start getting the tiny country out of its paralyzing economic and financial crisis.Lebanon’s economic crisis — triggered by decades of corruption and mismanagement — began in late 2019 and has intensified in recent months. The World Bank said earlier this month the crisis is likely to rank as one of the worst the world has seen in more than 150 years, adding that the economy contracted 20.3% in 2020 and is expected to shrink 9.5% this year.Lebanon defaulted on paying back its debt for the first time in March, while talks with the International Monetary Fund on a bailout package stopped last year. The crisis has been the biggest threat to Lebanon’s stability since the 1975-90 civil war ended.A power struggle between premier-designate Saad Hariri on one side, and Aoun and his son-in-law Gebran Bassil, who heads the largest bloc in parliament, on the other. It has worsened the crisis despite warnings from world leaders and economic experts of the dire economic conditions tiny Lebanon is facing.Hariri was named to form a new government in October and has not succeeded so far. The government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned days after a massive blast in Beirut on Aug. 4, that killed 211 people and injured more than 6,000.“We cannot understand that nine months after the resignation of a prime minister, there is still no government in Lebanon,” Borrell said. “Only an urgent agreement with the International Monetary Fund will rescue the country from a financial collapse.”“There is no time to waste. You are at the edge of the financial collapse,” he said in English.Borrell said the EU stands ready to assist Lebanon and its people but warned that if there is further obstruction to solutions to the multi-dimensional crisis “we will have to consider other courses of actions as some member states have proposed.”“The council of the European Union has been including other options, including targeted sanctions,” Borrell said. “Of course we prefer not to go down this road and we hope that we will not have to but it is in the hands of the Lebanese leadership.”Borrel rejected claims by some Lebanese politicians that refugees are the cause of the crisis, saying it is “homemade.”“It is not fair (to say) that the crisis in Lebanon comes from the presence of refugees,” he said referring to a nearly 1 million Syrian refugees who fled the war in their country to Lebanon.