Lebanon army deploys at pumps as bank chief firm on ending fuel subsidies

AFP , Saturday 14 Aug 2021

As Lebanon's economic crisis deepened, one of the country's top private hospitals said it could close due to power outages caused by shortages of diesel

Lebanon's army . File photo AFP

Lebanon's army Saturday seized fuel from gas stations to curb hoarding amid crippling shortages as the central bank chief stood firm on his decision to scrap fuel subsidies.

As Lebanon's economic crisis deepened, one of the country's top private hospitals said it could close due to power outages caused by shortages of diesel.

Lebanon is grappling with a financial crisis branded by the World Bank as one of the planet's worse since the 1850s.

Foreign currency reserves are fast depleting, forcing the central bank to scale-down funding for imports in an effort to shore up the little money Lebanon has left.

The Lebanese pound has lost more than 90 percent of its value on the black market, and 78 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

On Wednesday central bank chief Riad Salameh said he would scrap fuel subsidies to ease pressure on foreign reserves which have fallen to $14 billion.

His decision sparked panic, with huge queues forming outside bakeries and petrol stations as Lebanese -- 78 percent of whom live below the poverty line -- struggled to stock up.

Salameh told a radio station Saturday he would not back down.

"I will not review the removal of subsidies on fuel unless the use of compulsory reserves is legalised," by a parliamentary vote, he said.

Fuel shortages have led to power cuts lasting more than 22 hours a day, forcing the closure of businesses.

Decrying an "imminent disaster", the American University of Beirut Medical Centre said it would be forced to cease operations within 48 hours.

Without fuel, "forty adult patients and fifteen children living on respirators will die immediately," it warned in a statement.

"One hundred and eighty people suffering from renal failure will die poisoned after a few days... Hundreds of cancer patients, adults and children, will die in subsequent weeks."

- Army deploys-

Fuel importers blame the crisis on a delay by the central bank in opening credit lines to fund imports.

Salameh on Saturday accusing importers and distributors of hoarding fuel to sell at higher prices in the black market, or across the border in Syria.

With the situation rapidly deteriorating, the army raided gas stations Saturday and seized fuel to distribute to desperate customers.

A statement said the military confiscated more than 78,000 litres of gasoline stored at two gas stations as well as 57,000 litres of diesel fuel from a third one.

Pictures and video footage posted by the army on its social media pages showing soldiers working pumps at gas stations and filling up car tanks.

An AFP correspondent said troops were deployed at several gas stations north of Beirut, where hundreds of vehicles were trapped in long queues to fill up on petrol.

Video footage posted online showed motorists cheering as the army raided gas stations.

But some Lebanese remained bitter. "The army's decision is too late," said a motorist who had been waiting for hours in the scorching heat.

After the army's action, many petrol stations across the country which had been closed claiming they had no fuel, reopened.

- Political crisis-

The central bank's funding of fuel and other basic commodity imports has contributed to foreign reserves falling by more than 50 percent from their pre-crisis level of more than $30 billion.

Salameh said inaction by politicians led Lebanon to its breaking point.

"Everybody was aware... they were aware in government, parliament and the president's office" that reserves were falling, he said.

Salameh has headed the central bank since 1993 and is suspected by many Lebanese of helping facilitate large transfers of money abroad by the political elite during mass protests that began in October 2019.

He is under judicial investigation in Lebanon, Switzerland and France over several cases, including the diversion of public funds and illicit enrichment.

At home, many blame him for capital controls in place since 2019 that have trapped dollar savings and denied even the poorest segment of the population free access to their deposits.

Political wrangling to form a new government has added to Lebanon's dire situation.

The last cabinet resigned amid public outrage following last August's monster explosion at Beirut port that killed more than 200 people.

International donors have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Lebanon.

But the aid is conditional on the formation of a new government prepared to spearhead reforms and the resumption of talks with the International Monetary Fund.

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