Protests, roadblocks persist in Lebanon despite president's call

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Demonstrators kept blocking roadways across Lebanon on Tuesday in protest over the country’s financial meltdown and political deadlock, despite a call by President Michel Aoun for security forces to clear the obstructions.

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He spoke after a meeting with top security officials on Monday, but on Tuesday a major highway leading southward from Beirut as well as areas in the centre of the capital and around the northern city of Tripoli remained blocked with protesters burning tyres and urging more people to join them.

Army chief General Joseph Aoun said on Monday the right to peaceful protest would be protected barring damage to public or private property but warned that troops should not get sucked into politics.

Lebanon’s financial crisis, which erupted in 2019, has wiped out jobs, locked people out of their bank deposits and raised the risk of widespread hunger.

A new cabinet could implement reforms needed to trigger billions of dollars of international aid, but factional wrangling has frustrated the formation of a new government.

“What are the Lebanese people waiting for? ... Are you able to teach your children? If a child gets sick, can you admit them to hospital? Can you buy them medicine ... There is no education, no jobs, the dollar is at 10,000 (Lebanese pounds) and we are staying at home, dying slowly,” protester Fadi Nader said.

Groups of protesters have been burning tyres daily to block roads since the Lebanese currency tumbled to a new low last week, deepening popular anger over Lebanon’s financial collapse.

Three people died in car accidents amidst the roadblocks on Monday, local media reported.

Local television aired a funeral in Zgharta in north Lebanon for two young men who died when they drove into a truck that was parked across a road to block traffic.

“Every person in this country has to shoulder responsibility. Let protesters go to the houses of the leaders and their palaces, not block roads,” the priest conducting the funeral told the gathering.

The incident prompted Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai, the country’s top Christian cleric, to caution against chaotic road blocks.

“We are sorry that all of this has to happen, the people are angry and the youth are angry. We are with them, but we should not punish people on the road. They are not the source of Lebanon’s problems,” Rai, who has repeatedly urged fractious politicians to put their differences aside and form a government, said in a sermon.

Reporting by Laila Bassam, Issam Abdallah and Maha El Dahan; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Steve Orlofsky