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Rising cost of living, economic crisis trigger fresh protests in Lebanon

Dozens of demonstrators angered by a deepening economic crisis rallied for a third consecutive day on Saturday after a night of violent riots sparked condemnation from the political elite.

Rallying against the surging cost of living and the government’s apparent impotence in the face of the worst economic turmoil since the 1975-1990 civil war, protesters gathered in central Beirut, brandishing flags and chanting slogans.

In the northern city of Tripoli, young men scuffled with security forces who fired rubber bullets to disperse crowds.

The stand-off began after young men blocked a highway to prevent a number of trucks carrying produce destined for Syria from passing through, according to the official National News Agency. The Lebanese Red Cross said it treated nine people wounded in Tripoli.

The rallies came ahead of a speech by Prime Minister Hassan Diab at 1500 GMT.

“We are here to demand the formation of a new transitional government” and early parliamentary elections, Nehmat Badreddine, an activist and demonstrator told AFP in central Beirut.

Lebanon is caught in a spiralling economic crisis, including a rapid devaluation of the Lebanese pound, which has triggered a fresh wave of demonstrations since Thursday.

Lebanese media reported that the exchange rate had tumbled to 6,000 per dollar on the black market early on Friday, compared to the official peg of 1,507 in place since 1997.

After a crisis meeting on Friday, President Michel Aoun announced that the central bank would implement measures from Monday including “feeding dollars into the market”, in a bid to support the Lebanese pound.

Despite the government’s pledges, roughly 200 young men gathered on mopeds in central Beirut on Friday night. Some of them defaced shop fronts and set fire to stores, causing serious damage.

Security forces fired tear gas to disperse them and some of the young men threw stones and firecrackers back. Tension petered out after midnight.

In Tripoli, demonstrators threw stones and Molotov cocktails towards soldiers late on Friday and damaged the facades of several banks and shops. Soldiers responded with tear gas.

The next day, Diab called on officials to assess damage in central Beirut.

Former premier Saad Hariri toured the area, condemning vandalism and riots.

Interior minister Mohammed Fahmi said security forces would find those responsible for damaging property in the capital.

Lebanon — one of the most indebted countries in the world with sovereign debt of more than 170 percent of GDP — went into default in March.

It started talks with the International Monetary Fund last month in a bid to unlock billions of dollars in financial aid. Dialogue is ongoing.

Unemployment has soared to 35 percent nationwide.

The country enforced a lockdown in mid-March to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, dealing a further blow to businesses.

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