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Riots in crisis-hit Lebanon reflect growing poverty, despair

TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AP) — Hundreds of protesters in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli clashed with troops until late Tuesday night leaving several injured on both sides in some of the most serious riots triggered by an economic crisis spiraling out of control amid a weeks-long virus lockdown.

After a brief lull when Muslims broke their fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at sunset, clashes resumed following a tense funeral for a 27-year-old man killed during riots overnight in the country’s second largest city. Fawwaz Samman was shot by soldiers during confrontations that began Monday night and died in a hospital hours later.

Late Tuesday night, dozens of protesters gathered outside the central bank headquarters in the capital Beirut throwing stones toward the building before Lebanese soldiers dispersed them. Protesters in other parts of Lebanon cut major roads including the highway linking Beirut with southern Lebanon.

The Lebanese Red Cross said its paramedics evacuated four injured persons to hospitals and treated 22 on the spot in Tripoli. The protests intensified Monday as Lebanon began easing a weeks-long lockdown to limit the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in the country, which has reported 717 cases and 24 deaths so far.

In Tripoli on Tuesday, protesters set fire to two banks and hurled stones at soldiers who responded with tear gas and batons in renewed clashes triggered by an economic crisis, crash of the local currency and a sharp increase in prices of consumer goods.

Tripoli, a predominantly Sunni Muslim city, is in one of the most neglected and poorest regions in Lebanon, and there were concerns the confrontations would escalate to wider chaos. The violence was a reflection of the rising poverty and despair gripping the country amid a crippling financial crisis that has worsened since October, when nationwide protests against a corrupt political class broke out. A lockdown to stem the spread of the new coronavirus has further aggravated the crisis, throwing tens of thousands more people out of work.

The national currency has lost more than 50% of its value, and banks have imposed crippling capital controls amid a liquidity crunch. But it appeared to be in a free fall over the last few days, selling as low as 4,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar on the parallel market, down from a fixed peg of 1,500 pounds to the dollar in place for 30 years.

"What you’re seeing is a result of accumulated problems. We had a revolution, people were suffering, then came corona and people were locked in their homes for a month and a half without the state securing food and drink or anything else for them,” said protester Abdelaziz Sarkousi, 47. “Now we have reached a state where unfortunately you cannot control people anymore. People are hungry!”

Nearby, in a street lined with banks, dozens of protesters hurled Molotov cocktails, setting off blazing fires in at least two banks. Troops deployed quickly in the area to try to prevent further riots, occasionally firing rounds of tear gas to disperse the protesters.

Riots intensified in the afternoon with protesters setting two police vehicles ablaze as the army brought more reinforcements into the area to try to bring the situation under control. Soldiers chased protesters through the streets after they threw stones at troops. Soldiers also fired tear gas and rubber bullets.

“I was driving here yesterday with my wife and found protesters destroying and smashing (the banks), then they opened tear gas and bullets on us,” said resident Talal Sradar. Earlier in the day, hundreds marched in the funeral procession for Samman and gunmen fired in the air in a display of anger and mourning. The man's body was brought from his parents' home and placed briefly in front of his motorcycle repair shop before he was laid to rest in a Tripoli cemetery.

“The army command expresses its deep regret for the fall of a martyr,” the military said, adding that an investigation has been opened into Samman's death. Smaller protests also erupted elsewhere in Lebanon, including in Beirut's city center, where hundreds of demonstrators gathered Tuesday evening.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said ïn reaction to the clashes that the world body urges protesters to “exercise their right to protest peacefully and security personnel to protect peaceful protests and to act proportionally in maintaining law and order."

U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy C. Shea tweeted that the frustration of the Lebanese people “over the economic crisis is understandable, and the demands of protesters are justified. But incidents of violence, threats, and destruction of property are deeply concerning, and must stop.”

Last week, scattered anti-government protests resumed when the parliament held two days of meetings to draft and approve some laws but the protests were mostly in cars although there were some gatherings despite the lockdown.

In a statement about the overnight riots, the Lebanese army said “troublemakers who had infiltrated the protesters to attack banks" also threw firebombs and grenades at the military, setting a military vehicle on fire. It said 54 troops were injured across the country and that the army detained 13 people.

Public anger has mounted against banks in Lebanon after they imposed capital controls on people's deposits. The tiny Mediterranean country of about 5 million people is one the most indebted in the world. Nationwide protests broke out in October against the government because of widespread corruption and mismanagement of resources.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government came to office in January after his predecessor, Saad Hariri, stepped down. He was quickly engulfed in a nationwide health crisis over the novel cornavirus, a crisis that deepened the country’s economic recession.

Associated Press writers Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations in New York contributed reporting.

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