Beirut – The Lebanese army said Monday it had arrested dozens of suspects for “vandalism”, after days of protests triggered by a plunging local currency amid the worst economic crisis in decades.
Hundreds of protesters clashed with security forces at the weekend across the Mediterranean nation, after days of resurgent demonstrations against a ruling class deemed corrupt and impotent in tackling the spiralling crisis.
“The total number of arrests made by military intelligence between 11 and 15 June in different Lebanese regions is 36 people for acts of vandalism”, damaging public and private property and attacking security forces, an army statement said.
The official National News Agency reported that the army had launched a series of raids in the northern port of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city.
Over the course of three nights, young men attacked banks and shops and threw rocks at security forces in Tripoli who responded with rubber bullets and tear gas. Medical services reported dozens of wounded.
They were angered by a steep drop in the Lebanese pound, the sky-rocketing price of food and what they perceive to be the government’s failure to reign in the country’s economic collapse.
Relative calm returned on Sunday evening, with protesters holding a peaceful rally in the capital Beirut, while dozens marched to a central square in Tripoli, AFP reporters said.
The army’s announcement of arrests came after President Michel Aoun on Monday 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,” Aoun said after the meeting of the Higher Defence Council.
– ‘Deliberate’ devaluation –
Aoun called for “a wave of arrests, including of those who planned and carried out” such acts and ordered authorities to beef up “preemptive” operations to prevent further violence, a statement said.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab also 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.
On Saturday in Tripoli, protesters blocked trucks suspected of smuggling food products into Syria.
But the UN World Food Programme said it had itself sent the convoy of 39 trucks carrying food aid bound for the war-torn country.
People who blocked the passage of “trucks carrying food staples on behalf of international agencies” were among those arrested, the army said Monday.
The latest wave of demonstrations come almost eight months after the start of a mass protest movement over Lebanon’s crumbling economy and corruption.
The Lebanese pound had 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 has led to soaring unemployment — over a third of the workforce is out of work — and in March the country defaulted on its sovereign debt for the first time.
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 lives under the poverty line.
The economy has been hit hard by years of war in neighbouring Syria.