U.N. readying U.S.-funded salary support for Lebanese soldiers, defence ministry says

BEIRUT, Sept 19 (Reuters) - The United Nations is finalising a plan to provide U.S.-funded salary assistance to Lebanese soldiers hard hit by the country's financial crisis, the U.N.'s representative in Lebanon told the country's defence minister on Monday, the ministry said.

Discontent has been brewing in the security forces as Lebanon's currency has lost more than 90% of its value against the dollar, driving down most soldiers' wages to less than $100 per month. Many have taken extra jobs, and thousands have quit.

The military has been squeezed so badly by the country's three-year-old financial meltdown that its canteens stopped offering meat to troops in 2020 and began offering sightseeing tours in its helicopters to raise cash.

U.N. Special Coordinator Joanna Wronecka told caretaker Defence Minister Maurice Slim that U.S. assistance for the salaries of soldiers "is in its final organizational stages and will be paid to soldiers via a United Nations programme".

Washington is the biggest foreign aid donor to Lebanon.

The U.S. Embassy in Beirut did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A Lebanese army spokesperson said they had no information about any such U.S. support.

In January, the U.S. State Department informed Congress of plans to reroute $67 million of military aid for Lebanon to include "livelihood support" for Lebanese soldiers, citing economic turmoil as well as social unrest.

Qatar in June pledged $60 million to support Lebanese soldiers, which a Lebanese Army source told Reuters would allow for payments of $100 per soldier through the end of the year.

The source, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said that roughly 5,000 soldiers had left the 80,00-strong army since the beginning of the crisis.

The army command's decision to allow soldiers to take on second jobs has slowed the pace of desertions, the source said.

Lebanon's financial crisis has gutted public sector salaries and the amount paid to soldiers is barely enough to afford a basic subscription to a generator service that could offset the daily 22-hour power cuts plaguing the country.

(This story was corrected to make clear that UN representative met with the Lebanese defence minister, changes sourcing to defence ministry statement)

Reporting by Timour Azhari; editing by Hugh Lawson and Mark Heinrich

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