BEIRUT — Clashes broke out between protesters and security forces in northern Lebanon Monday amid a crash in the local currency and a surge in food prices. Dozens of young men smashed the fronts of local banks and set fire to an army vehicle, as the protests turned into riots.
The Red Cross said its teams were working on evacuating wounded people in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city and one of the most neglected regions in Lebanon.
Scattered anti-government protests resumed last week as the government began easing the weeks-long lockdown to limit the spread of the new coronavirus in Lebanon, which has reported 710 cases and 24 deaths so far. The number of registered cases has dropped over the past two weeks, leading to the shortening of the nighttime curfew by one hour and allowing some businesses to resume work on Monday.
The virus outbreak has exacerbated a severe economic and financial crisis gripping the country since late last year, the most serious to hit Lebanon since the end of its 1975-90 civil war.
The Lebanese national currency hit a new record low over the weekend, with 4,000 pounds to the dollar on the black market while the official price remained at 1,507 pounds.
Tripoli is the capital of northern Lebanon, where unemployment is among the highest in the country and poverty is widespread.
Earlier Monday, scattered anti-government protests broke out in several parts of the country, leading to road closures that prevented medical teams from setting out from Beirut to conduct coronavirus tests across the country.
The Health Ministry said its teams would try again on Tuesday, urging protesters to let the paramedics work to evaluate the spread of the virus in the tiny country of 5 million people.
Around noon Monday, Lebanese troops forcefully removed dozens of protesters from a major highway in Zouk Mosbeh, north of Beirut, and traffic resumed. Shortly afterward, it was blocked again with burning tires.
The Lebanese army said it respects the people’s right to protest as long as the protesters don’t close roads or attack public and private property.
“Our demands are simple and we are not asking for the impossible,” said protester George Ghanem in Zouk Mosbeh, citing early parliamentary elections and an independent judiciary. “We want to live in dignity … we will continue and no one will remove us from the street.”
A woman carried a placard reading: “My salary buys me two cartons of milk.”
On Sunday night, the Central Bank of Lebanon issued a circular instructing currency exchange shops not to sell the dollar for more than 3,200 pounds. On Monday, most exchange shops were not selling dollars, saying clients who have dollars are refusing to exchange their hard currency at such a low price.
Earlier over the weekened, several banks in northern and southern Lebanon were attacked, some with firebombs, reflecting rising public anger against banks that have imposed capital controls on people’s accounts.
In a sign of the deepening crisis, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab on Friday accused the longtime Central Bank governor, Riad Salameh, of orchestrating the local currency’s crash, and criticized what he called the governor’s “opaque” policies that the premier said covered up major banking sector losses and capital flight.
Also Monday, Lebanon’s energy minister Raymond Ghajar said that initial results of drilling off the Lebanese coast show that there is gas on different depths in the first well ever dug in the country’s waters. The minister added that it has not been proven yet if there is a reservoir in bloc 4 where drilling is taking place.
Cash strapped-Lebanon has put high hopes on its first offshore exploratory drilling for oil and gas, launched in February.
In 2017, Lebanon approved the licenses for an international consortium led by France’s Total, Italy’s ENI and Russia’s Novatek to move forward with offshore oil and gas development for two of 10 blocks in the Mediterranean Sea, including one that is partly claimed by Israel.
Lebanon is one of the world’s most indebted countries and has been grappling with a liquidity crunch, an economic recession and rising unemployment.
Associated Press writer Fadi Tawil in Beirut contributed reporting.
Bassem Mroue, The Associated Press