May 12, 2019 / 8:34 PM / 7 days ago

Retired Lebanese soldiers picket central bank over cuts

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Retired soldiers in Lebanon, concerned about any pension or benefit cuts as the government debates a draft budget, started picketing the Central Bank building late on Sunday, saying they aimed to stop workers from entering on Monday morning.

Retired soldiers gesture as they take part in a protest over proposed cuts to the cost of military pensions and benefits in front of the central bank in Beirut, Lebanon May 12, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

As about 100 protesters gathered outside the Central Bank, Lebanon’s coalition government held its latest meeting to try to agree a budget that would reduce the fiscal deficit in the heavily indebted state.

General Sami Ramah, a spokesman for the retired soldiers, said they would stay at the bank, stopping employees from entering, until their demand of no cuts to the military budget was met.

Information Minister Jamal Jarrah said after the meeting that the level of public sector salaries in the draft budget was not discussed on Sunday, but that decisions were made on “significant cuts” in the budgets of government departments.

The retired soldiers have blocked the Central Bank’s three entrances, including the one for vehicles, said a Reuters video journalist at the site.

There was no immediate comment from the bank, but Abbas Awada, the head of its workers’ syndicate, told Reuters that Monday is supposed to be a normal work day for his members.

“The soldiers are blocking the doors of the bank and this obstructs the arrival of employees, but God willing there will be another way for employees to get in,” he said.

Retired soldiers have been among the most vocal opponents of reported cuts in the draft budget, blocking roads with burning tyres to protest any cuts to their pensions and benefits.

The government said on Friday it had agreed to tighten the allocation of financial incentives that are intended for soldiers on frontline duty but applied more widely in practice.

Central Bank workers went on strike early last week over proposed cuts in the wage bill, causing the Beirut Stock Exchange to suspend trading for two days because the transaction clearance and settlement process could not be completed on time.

Workers at other state institutions including the national power producer, telecom firm Ogero and the port of Beirut held strikes for several days last week.

With Lebanon suffering from years of low economic growth, long-stalled reforms are seen as more pressing than ever.

But the strikes and protests point to the political difficulties facing Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s unity government as it seeks to craft a budget to narrow a gaping deficit.

The public-sector wage bill is the government’s biggest expense followed by debt servicing costs and the big subsidies paid annually to the state-owned power producer.

Lebanon has public debt equivalent to 150% of gross domestic product (GDP). The draft budget aims to reduce the deficit to below 9% of GDP from 11.2% in 2018.

Cabinet talks on the draft budget will continue on Monday, Jarrah said.

Reporting by Laila Bassam, Angus McDowall and Issam Abdallah; Editing by Will Dunham, Peter Cooney and Daniel Wallis

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