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BEIRUT — Lebanon’s government agreed a procedure on Tuesday to allow citizens abroad to come back despite a coronavirus lockdown after its expat policy drew criticism from political leaders.

Hezballah’s Al-Rasool Al Aatham University hospital in south Beirut has been converted to a secret facility for treating high Iranian officials infected with coronavirus, various Lebanese sources reveal. Tehran’s Lebanese proxy boasts that its hospital operates according to strict Shiite Islamic tenets.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, one of the country’s most powerful figures, had threatened to withdraw support for the cabinet if it did not act to bring home Lebanese stranded abroad during the pandemic. 

Beirut airport has been closed to flights for two weeks as part of efforts to limit transmissions of the virus, which has so far infected 470 people with 12 deaths. The government has ordered a shutdown and an overnight curfew until April 12 in a country where dollar shortages had drained the healthcare system of critical supplies months before the outbreak.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab, whose government was already grappling with a severe financial crisis before the virus hit, pledged strict measures to ensure safe returns of expatriates, his office said on Tuesday after a cabinet session. 

“We cannot bear any faltering step, and none of the political forces can bear having on its conscience the spread of the (virus) and the collapse of the health system,” Diab said.

Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad said returns would start on Sunday and all passengers would be screened before they board flights to Lebanon. She said cabinet may make changes to the procedure for returns in a session on Thursday.

Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti told local broadcaster al-Jadeed earlier on Tuesday that based on an initial tally from embassies, some 20,000 Lebanese may want to return home.

With the world’s big cities in lockdown, Lebanese overseas have faced complications due to curbs by Lebanon’s banks which have blocked transfers abroad in recent months and severely limited cash withdrawals from ATMs. 

Lebanon’s banking association said on Sunday that the lenders were “committed to transferring the appropriate sums for Lebanese students living abroad.”

Other leaders have also echoed Berri’s call for returning expats, including his ally the head of the Shi’ite Hezbollah movement Hassan Nasrallah

Most of Lebanon’s main politicians have close ties to the country’s large diaspora communities from which they draw support.

Much higher number of cases than reported

The Guardian newspaper has reported that health and other officials focused on Lebanon, Iraq and Syria fear the numbers of people infected with coronavirus far exceed the official figures disclosed by all three governments. 

“Officials, including bureaucrats, aid workers and international observers, who spoke with the Guardian over the past week say parts of Lebanon and Iraq in particular are likely to be holding thousands more infected people, and that a lack of disclosure poses a serious health risk over the next three months,” the newspaper added.

“They also claim coronavirus patients are being housed and guarded by political groups in central and southern Iraq and southern Lebanon,” it said.

A farce

MP Ziyad Aswad of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) , criticized calls for expatriates to be returned. 

“More than four weeks into the anti-coronavirus measures, specifically abroad, and after everyone has coped with them and is taking precautions where they are inside Lebanon, the calls and threats for opening the borders cannot but have another reason that has nothing to do with the diaspora,” Aswad tweeted.

“This is a farce,”the controversial lawmaker added.

The president of Lebanon General Michel Aoun is the founder of FPM but is now run by his son-in-law- Gebran Bassil . According to analysts Hezbollah is the cabinet and Aoun is powerless . By backing Berri , Hezbollah forced the cabinet to do exactly what Berri told it to do .

One analyst told Ya Libnan as he commented on the situation “Welcome to Lebanon, Hezbollah decided to bring the Lebanese from Iran and that is why we have so many coronavirus cases and Hezbollah is now forcing the country to bring in more Lebanese who could wreck the lockdown . Before we used to say Hezbollah is a mini state within the state of Lebanon , now Hezbollah is the state and treating Lebanon like a the mini state , thanks to to no one else but Aoun.

 Reuters

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