Tense calm in northern Lebanese city after violent clashes


TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AP) – A cautious calm prevailed in the northern city of Tripoli on Friday hours after rioters set fire to several buildings, capping days of violent clashes as anger over growing poverty made worse by the coronavirus lockdown boiled over.

Lebanese troops deployed in the country’s second-largest city in an effort to quell the rioting, which has led to repeated confrontations with security forces in which one person was killed and more than 250 others injured.

The protests in Tripoli, which started Monday, came as Lebanon grapples with both the pandemic and the worst economic crisis in its history, with only a caretaker government in charge. Tripoli is among the most impoverished and neglected in Lebanon, which has been in a state of economic and financial meltdown for the past year.

Even before the economic crisis began in late 2019, almost the entire city’s workforce depended on day-to-day income. Since then, the Lebanese currency has lost around 80% of its value against the dollar, and nearly half of the country’s population has been thrown into poverty.

While the protests are targeting the strict lockdown measures, they also reflect the growing anger over authorities’ indifference in the face of Lebanon’s meltdown. The cash-strapped government has done little to compensate or help the impoverished to cope with the growing hardships, and politicians have been unable to agree on the formation of a new government since August, when the current Cabinet resigned over the massive explosion at Beirut’s port.

The confluence of crises has posed the biggest threat to Lebanon’s stability since the end of its civil war in 1990.

On Thursday night, dozens of young men set fire to a historic municipal building they had been trying to storm for days. They also firebombed two other government buildings and a private university that belongs to a former prime minister.

Protesters earlier Thursday had pelted security forces with rocks, who responded with volleys of tear gas and water cannons.

Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, who was tasked with forming a new government more than three months ago, described the violence in Tripoli as “organized crime” and blamed the military for allowing the vandalism to take place.

“Who will protect Tripoli, if the army fails to protect it?” Hariri said in a statement issued late Thursday.

Smaller protests were also reported in Beirut and the eastern Bekaa region on Thursday, as well as earlier in the week.

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