Lebanon officials vow arrests after violent protests


Beirut (AFP)

Lebanese authorities toughened their tone on protests Monday, promising arrests for "vandalism" after several days of angry demonstrations sparked by the country's deepening economic crisis.

Hundreds of protesters clashed with security forces at the weekend across the Mediterranean nation whose currency has collapsed amid the worst financial crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war.

Relative calm returned on Sunday evening, with protesters holding a peaceful rally in the capital Beirut, while dozens marched to a central square in the northern city of Tripoli, AFP reporters said.

That came after three nights of violence in which demonstrators, angered by sky-rocketing prices and the government's apparent inability to tackle a dizzying devaluation of the Lebanese pound, blocked highways and scuffled with security forces in the capital and the country's north.

In Tripoli, young men attacked banks and shops and threw rocks at security forces who responded with rubber bullets and tear gas. Medical services reported dozens of injured.

President Michel Aoun on Monday afternoon discussed the protests with the country's top security body including ministers and military officials.

"Such acts of vandalism will not be allowed after today," he said after the meeting of the Higher Defense Council.

Aoun called for "a wave of arrests, including of those who planned and carried out" such acts, according to a statement read on television after the meeting.

He ordered authorities to beef up "preemptive" operations to prevent similar violence from reoccurring.

In a sperate statement released before the meeting, Prime Minister Hassan Diab condemned acts of "sabotage" committed by "thugs" in Beirut and Tripoli.

"Thugs have no other motive than vandalism, and they should be thrown in jail, period," said a statement released by his office.

The official National News Agency later reported that the Lebanese army had launched a series of raids in Tripoli to arrest perpetrators of vandalism and violence.

- 'Deliberate' devaluation -

The latest wave of demonstrations come almost eight months after the start of a mass protest movement over Lebanon's crumbling economy and perceived official corruption.

The Lebanese pound plumbed new lows on Thursday, hitting 5,000 to the dollar for the first time.

The next day, authorities vowed to pump greenbacks into the market to limit the rout. A Beirut money-changer told AFP on Monday that the dollar was selling for up to 4,400 pounds.

Diab on Monday called for an investigation into the rapid devaluation of the Lebanese pound, calling the fluctuation a "deliberate" act committed by currency manipulators.

Lebanon's economic crisis, which has led to soaring unemployment and forced the country to default on its sovereign debt for the first time, has sparked an outpouring of anger at a political elite seen as incompetent and nepotistic.

The government has put together a reform package to relaunch the economy and is in talks with the International Monetary Fund to access desperately needed financial aid.

Inflation is expected to top 50 percent this year, in a country where 45 percent of the population live under the poverty line and over a third of the workforce are out of jobs.

The economy has been hit hard by years of war in neighbouring Syria.

On Saturday in Tripoli, protesters blocked trucks suspected of smuggling food products into Syria.

But the UN World Food Programme in statement said it had sent the convoy of 39 trucks carrying food aid bound for the war-torn country.