Lebanon banks in tatters after angry night-time demos

The commercial district of Hamra, a banking hub, was the scene of overnight scuffles between security forces and protesters furious over the curbs that have trapped their savings. — AFP pic
The commercial district of Hamra, a banking hub, was the scene of overnight scuffles between security forces and protesters furious over the curbs that have trapped their savings. — AFP pic

BEIRUT, Jan 15 — Cleaners in crisis-hit Beirut swept away shattered glass outside banks today after angry night-time protests over informal capital controls that left dozens of people injured.

The commercial district of Hamra, a banking hub, was the scene of overnight scuffles between security forces and protesters furious over the curbs that have trapped their savings.

They torched waste bins, destroyed ATMs and smashed the display windows of banks using fire extinguishers, rocks and metal rods.

They splattered walls with graffiti, vandalised street signs and sparked a blaze outside the Association of Banks, as part of what protesters have billed a “week of wrath”.

At least 37 people on both sides were injured as security forces fired tear gas to disperse the demonstrators, a Red Cross spokesperson told AFP.

Banks in Hamra reopened despite the damage, with cleaners wiping spray paint off walls and workers replacing window fronts.

Municipality workers replaced traffic lights.

With some ATMs destroyed beyond repair, passers-by looked on in astonishment at the aftermath of the assault on banks.

Now in its third month, Lebanon’s anti-government protest movement is increasingly targeting banks blamed for driving the country towards its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Demonstrators accuse banks of holding their deposits hostage while allowing politicians, senior civil servants and bank owners to transfer money abroad, despite restrictions that prevent most Lebanese from carrying out such transfers.

Although no formal policy is in place, most lenders have arbitrarily capped withdrawals at around US$1,000 a month, while others have imposed tighter restrictions.

Sparked by a grinding liquidity crunch, the informal controls are increasingly forcing depositors to deal in the plummeting Lebanese pound.

The local currency has lost over a third of its value against the dollar on the black market, plunging to almost 2,500 against the US dollar.

The official rate has been pegged at 1,507 Lebanese pounds to the greenback since 1997.

Protests had dwindled to symbolic gatherings since last month when Hassan Diab, a professor and former education minister, was designate premier.

But Lebanese have returned to the streets since Saturday, when hundreds gathered across the country to vent their frustration.

The protesters are demanding a new government made up solely of independent technocrats.

Analysts warn this may be a tall order in a country ruled by a sectarian power-sharing system since the end of its devastating 15-year civil war. — AFP

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