Violent demonstrations, protester death grip northern Lebanon

Violent protests erupted in Lebanon's Tripoli again on Tuesday, with more banks set ablaze after a night of rioting that left one protester dead, according to security and medical sources, in demonstrations renewed by growing economic despair.

All banks were closed in Tripoli on Tuesday after some were firebombed

Lebanese soldiers are seen near a bank on fire during unrest, as an economic crisis brings demonstrations back onto the streets in Tripoli, Lebanon, on Tuesday. (Omar Ibrahim/Reuters)

Violent protests erupted in Lebanon's Tripoli again on Tuesday, with more banks set ablaze after a night of rioting that left one protester dead, according to security and medical sources, in demonstrations renewed by growing economic despair.

A collapse in the Lebanese pound and soaring inflation and unemployment are compounding hardship in Lebanon, which has been in deep financial crisis since October. A shutdown to curb the spread of the new coronavirus has exacerbated economic woes.

Overnight, protesters in the northern city of Tripoli set several banks and an army vehicle on fire. Soldiers fired into the air and used tear gas and rubber bullets, a security source said.

The man who died was in his 20s and it was not immediately clear who was responsible for his death, the source said.

Protesters returned on Tuesday, lighting two commercial banks on fire and smashing their facades, prompting the army to redeploy. Dozens of soldiers positioned themselves in a main commercial street lined with several banks, and some fired rubber bullets and tear gas to repel protesters.

Anti-government protesters carry their friend who was wounded by a rubber bullet during clashes with Lebanese army soldiers in Tripoli on Tuesday. (Bilal Hussein/The Associated Press)

Prime Minister Hassan Diab urged the public to refrain from violence and said "malicious intentions behind the scenes" were "shaking stability."

"We are faced with a new reality, a reality that the social and living crisis has made worse at record speed, especially with the rise of the U.S. dollar exchange rate to record levels on the black market," Diab said in a statement.

The unrest threatens to tip the country back into violence even as Beirut looks to pass an economic rescue plan and enter negotiations with foreign creditors after defaulting on its hefty debt obligations last month.

In a phone call to Diab on Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Paris was ready to convene an international support group meeting for Lebanon as soon as coronavirus lockdown measures were lifted.

Diab's government, formed in January with the support of the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah, has struggled to enact reforms demanded by foreign donors to release billions of dollars in pledged financing.

"People have lost their purchasing power and the state has no plan to do anything. Banks are closed and not giving money to people. I think this government should resign," said Tripoli lawyer Fahed Moukaddem.

Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad said after a cabinet meeting on Tuesday "final touches" were being put to the rescue plan, a draft of which this month estimated losses in the banking sector at $83 billion US.

'A lot of anger'

Tripoli, a port city 80 kilometres north of Beirut and long dogged by chronic poverty and unemployment, was the stage for big protests against Lebanon's ruling elite during countrywide demonstrations that erupted last October.

The army said that overnight a firebomb was thrown at one of its vehicles and a hand grenade was hurled at a patrol. It blamed the trouble on "a number of infiltrators," calling on peaceful protesters to quickly leave the streets.

A later army statement said 40 soldiers were wounded in Tripoli and elsewhere after patrols looking to reopen cut roadways were hit by stones.

Three banks and several ATMs in Tripoli were burned and nine protesters were arrested, the statement said.

The banking association declared all banks in Tripoli shut from Tuesday until security is restored, saying they had been targeted in "serious attacks and rioting."

"There is a lot of anger among people because of the economic situation they are experiencing and the crazy rise in dollar price. The purchasing power of Lebanese has become non-existent," said Samer Diblis, an activist from Tripoli.

"We are surely heading to a much worse place.... If it is not solved with politics, this situation will surely keep on deteriorating."

A statement from the U.S. Embassy in Beirut said: "The frustration of the Lebanese people over the economic crisis is understandable, and the demands of protesters are justified. But incidents of violence, threats, and destruction of property are deeply concerning, and must stop."

Jan Kubis, the UN's special co-ordinator for Lebanon, said the violence was a warning for Lebanon's political leaders.

"This is the time to provide material support to increasingly desperate, impoverished and hungry majority of Lebanese all around the country," he said in a tweet.