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Lebanon cabinet approves political and economic plan

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Beirut (AFP)

Lebanon's new cabinet Thursday approved a policy statement expected to outline a broad action plan to save the protest-hit country from one of its worst economic crises in decades.

Information minister Manal Abdel Samad said the document was backed unanimously during a cabinet meeting at the presidential palace before it is due to be presented to parliament next week.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his new government face the twin challenge of angry street protests and a collapsing economy, with Lebanon burdened by debt of nearly 90 billion dollars, or more than 150 percent of GDP.

Diab, a 61-year-old computer engineering professor, formed a cabinet on January 21 after the previous government stepped down in October during unprecedented demonstrations.

The premier on Thursday described the policy statement as "a working programme laying out our aspirations", Abdel Samad said.

"It is the product of facts and studies" and was not influenced by individual interests, she reported him as saying.

The policy statement maintained the "tripartite alliance between the army, the people and the Resistance," she said, the third term referring to the Shiite movement Hezbollah.

The phrasing confers legitimacy on Hezbollah as an armed force, and has sparked controversy in the past after being included in previous cabinet statements.

Hezbollah is the only force not to have disarmed after Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, and is credited with expelling Israeli forces from southern Lebanon.

It is listed as a "terrorist" group by the United States and the European Union, but is a prominent player in politics with seats in parliament.

The National News Agency said parliament would convene on Tuesday and Wednesday to review the statement and hold a confidence vote.

The policy statement comes as Lebanon grapples with a financial crisis, which has seen the value of the Lebanese pound fall by a fourth on the parallel market.

International donors have repeatedly urged Lebanon to implement reforms before they release billions of dollars in frozen aid.

UN envoy to Lebanon Jan Kubis on Wednesday reiterated that the government must take its own steps to mitigate the economic crisis before any outside help.

"The conditions are reforms, reforms, reforms," he said.

I hope "the new government will come with a clear action plan... with deadlines," he said.

"And then, we will try to help, but it must start with the work of the government," Kubis said.

On Friday, Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni is to meet a delegation from the World Bank, according to a statement from his office.

Lebanon has been rocked by protests since October 17 demanding a complete overhaul of a political class which activists say is inept, corrupt and motivated by personal gain.

The demonstrations have reduced in size in recent weeks.

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