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Beirut lifts security cordon in boost for battered business quarter

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon lifted a years-old security cordon near its parliament on Wednesday in a move it hopes will revive central Beirut’s business district and cement improved political stability after a prolonged period of upheaval.

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Security forces removed metal barriers and heavy concrete slabs which had blocked all entrances to Beirut’s showpiece Place d’Etoile quarter and forced most shops and restaurants in the once thriving district to shut down.

The security measures had been in place around the square for a number of years, but were significantly tightened in 2015 following large-scale protests over a garbage crisis.

Crowds thronged the Place d’Etoile square for the first time in a decade on Sunday night to usher in the new year with fireworks, music and dancing in the streets.

The speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, who issued Wednesday’s order, said he hoped businesses, restaurants, hotels and offices in the area would now be able to resume work.

“There were many times we thought about closing, but we said ‘no, maybe things will pick up’,” said Zeina Hasbini, who runs a chocolate boutique just off the square.

She and her son, who runs a small grocery store next door, said they were sure lifting the barriers would boost business as footfall and investment increased.

Though Lebanon still faces daunting challenges, it has seen some progress over the past year despite continued conflict in neighboring Syria and rising tensions elsewhere in the region.

Its squabbling politicians clinched a deal that ended a two-and-a-half-year period without a state president and installed a new government under Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri. The government also approved its first budget in 12 years and awarded its first offshore oil land gas exploration licenses.

In August, Islamic State and other militants were cleared from the Lebanon-Syria border area after separate offensives by the Lebanese army and Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah militia.

The Petit Cafe overlooking Place d’Etoile reopened in mid-2017 after shutting its doors as the Syrian crisis erupted.

“The country ground to a halt: you no longer saw tourists, or people from the Gulf countries, so we closed for about 6-7 years,” said Muhammad Faris, the restaurant manager.

He said the new year’s celebrations and the lifting of the barriers were signs that the area “can flourish again”.

Despite such signs of hope, Lebanon remains a politically fraught country.

Tensions flared in November when Hariri unexpectedly resigned as prime minister in a shock broadcast from Saudi Arabia -- a move linked to conflict in the wider region between Riyadh and Tehran. He subsequently withdrew the resignation and the government resumed business as usual.

Reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Gareth Jones