As Lebanon leaders talk austerity, protesters cry 'thieves!'

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BEIRUT (AP) — Dozens of Lebanese military and security veterans burned tires and shouted angrily outside government offices on Friday, their second protest in less than two weeks amid fears a proposed austerity budget may affect their pensions and benefits.

The protesters gathered in downtown Beirut as ministers met to discuss a budget bill that aims to cut public spending and tackle a national debt that stands at more than 150% of GDP. They denounced leaked reports of cuts to their pensions, calling on the government to address corruption instead.

"Thieves. Thieves. They are all thieves," the protesters chanted. One protester said they were burning tires to draw the ministers' attention to their warnings.

"If they can't see us, maybe they can smell," the unnamed protester told Lebanese station MTV.

Some protesters scuffled outside the Cabinet meeting with security personnel who tried to prevent them from burning tires.

"We are back today to tell this government to beware: our pensions and our family rights are a red line," said retired Gen. Sami Rammah. "We are waiting for the decisions of the government meeting. If it is good, then all good and well. If it is evil, we will let them know about evil."

He warned of escalating protests around Lebanon.

The government's planned budget cuts have unleashed a wave of public discontent that has widened.

Local media reported the planned cuts target public wages, chipping away at end of service and social benefits of civil servants and reducing early retirement compensation. Senior officials would also see their salaries cut and capped. Income taxes on the highest brackets, along with taxes on interest from bank deposits, are expected to be raised, according to a leaked budget proposal. Another measure that might also meet resistance is a debt swap with local banks.

Thousands of civil servants and staff of the Central Bank held brief strikes to pressure the government to spare them cuts.

On Friday, professors in the state-owned Lebanese University also protested potential cuts to their wages and the learning institution's budget.

The government's budget and key reforms aim to unlock billions of dollars in pledged foreign assistance.

Lebanon's economy is struggling with soaring debt, rising unemployment and slow growth. The $85 billion debt and unemployment believed to be around 36% are compounding concerns that the country will finally cave in economically.

Hussein Yazbek, a 59-year-old from Baalbek who retired in 1999, is worried that his $930 monthly pension would be affected. He said instead of targeting veterans like himself, the government should pass laws to fight corruption and reclaim stolen public funds.

The army, he said, defended the country in various wars, including Israeli incursions and internal disputes.

"If the treasury needs money and the pensions of the veterans is really what saves it, then so be it," Yazbek said. But he added: "These are our legitimate rights."

Defense Minister Elias Bou Saab appeared among the protesters briefly, urging them to break up their gathering. He called on them to send representatives to his office to follow up on the planned government cuts.

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