Top UN official in Lebanon blasts politicians' inaction

Top UN official in Lebanon blasts politicians' inaction

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BEIRUT (AP) — The top U.N. official in Lebanon on Wednesday denounced acts of vandalism by protesters targeting the country's banks a day earlier. But the senior diplomat reserved his harshest words for Lebanese politicians, saying they had only themselves to blame for the chaos.

The strongly worded statement by Jan Kubis, U.N. special coordinator for Lebanon, came as violent confrontations between protesters and police continued for a second consecutive day. On Wednesday night, police fired tear gas and beat up protesters who hit back with fire crackers, water bottles and stones in a Beirut neighborhood. At least 35 were injured, mostly from gas inhalation or rock throwing, according to the Red Cross. Ten were treated on the spot.

Kubis criticized the political class' management of the country's deepening economic crisis, saying those responsible for handling it “are watching it collapse. Incredible.”

Kubis' comments, made in a series of tweets, reflect the growing frustration of the international community with the stalemate that has beset the country as politicians jockey for power even as the economy spirals downward.

International donors have been demanding that Lebanon institute major economic changes and anti-corruption measures and appoint a new government to unlock $11 billion in pledges made in 2018.

Panic and anger gripped the public as they watched their local currency, pegged to the dollar for almost three decades, plummet, losing more than 60% of its value in recent weeks. Public debt has soared while the economy contracted and foreign inflows dried up in the already heavily indebted country that relies on imports for most of its basic goods.

Meanwhile, banks have imposed informal capital controls, limiting withdrawal of dollars and foreign transfers in the country.

Protesters rallied outside the central bank Tuesday night denouncing its governor's policies and the entire political class for mismanaging the economy. The rally turned violent, and protesters clashed with security forces for hours, some of them smashing windows of private banks nearby.

“Another day of confusion around the formation of a government, amidst the increasingly angry protests and free-falling economy,” Kubis tweeted. “Politicians, don't blame the people, blame yourselves for this dangerous chaos.”

He said, however, that vandalism is not an appropriate way of manifesting “legitimate anger and desperation.”

Lebanese security forces arrested 59 people, police said Wednesday, following the overnight clashes. The hours-long clashes also left 47 policemen injured, security forces said.

On Wednesday, hundreds gathered outside a police station demanding the release of those taken into custody the night before, clashing with security forces who lobbed tear gas to disperse them. Police detained scores of protesters and beat some of them, including women, dragging them away. For the second night in a row, some protesters smashed the windows of a private bank and destroyed a nearby ATM machine.

Elsewhere in Beirut, protesters resumed blocking roads and rallied outside the central bank by nightfall. Dozens were able to partially block three main roads and temporarily shut down a highway north of the city before the military reopened it.

In three months of protests, this was the first time the commercial center of Beirut had become the scene of clashes. The area, which is also home to theaters and restaurants, was left deserted except for protesters, police and smoke from the tear gas.

Traffic resumed Wednesday and shops and banks reopened as pavement was cleared of broken glass.

Outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who resigned shortly after the protests first began in mid-October, said the violence in Hamra was “unacceptable" and an aggression on the heart of the capital. He called for an investigation. A new prime minister designate was named in December but has still been unable to form a new government.

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