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Saturday, Feb 04, 2023

French inquiry into Beirut port blast begins as Lebanon grapples with economic, political crises

French inquiry into Beirut port blast begins as Lebanon grapples with economic, political crises

Lebanese people took to the streets on Tuesday to protest against the deteriorating economic and social conditions in different regions of the country.
The protests coincided with the presence of European judges in the Justice Palace in Beirut investigating the central bank and Riad Salameh, its governor, over alleged corruption, money laundering, tax evasion, and use of forged documents.

A French judicial delegation is also in Lebanon to investigate the Beirut port explosion.

The delegation met on Tuesday with Judge Ghassan Oueidat, Lebanon’s prosecutor general, in the presence of Judge Sabouh Sleiman, the assistant prosecutor general.

The French authorities had requested legal assistance from the Lebanese judiciary, but this has not yet been forthcoming.

Arab News has learned that the French investigators will meet with Judge Tarek Bitar. Two French nationals — Jean-Marc Bonfils and Therese Khoury — died in the port explosion in 2020 which claimed more than 200 deaths.

Meanwhile, hundreds of employees at the Ministry of Communications and the state-run internet provider Ogero have gone on strike, demanding salaries that have gone unpaid for three months. Escalatory measures have been threatened as the Ministry of Finance has struggled with payments.

Ibrahim Al-Nahhal, a member of the governing body of the Public Administration Employees Association, said: “There’s no job without a salary. We understand the inability of the employees of the Finance Ministry to attend the ministry regularly and finalize the paperwork, but some of our colleagues haven’t received their salaries yet. This requires a solution.”

Bassel Al-Ayoubi, general director at the Ministry of Telecommunications, said: “Coordination is taking place with the Ministry of Finance to pay an allowance for two months of social assistance during the next two days.”

Drivers of taxis and tuk-tuks also carried out protests, during which they blocked main roads, especially in the Akkar region in northern Lebanon, due to the high exchange rate of the dollar on the black market, and the rise in fuel prices.

Many car dealers and showroom owners blocked the highway that leads to the Port of Beirut, in protest at the failure to amend customs fees.

An amendment of customs fees requires the signature of the Cabinet, which has not been able to meet as ministers from the Free Patriotic Movement refuse to attend. It believes the government “has no legitimacy and is a caretaker government.”

Walid Francis, head of the Syndicate of Owners of Used Car Showrooms, said: “There is political distress regarding our economic demand.”

Elie Al-Qazi, the head of the Syndicate of Used Car Importers, criticized the “unconsidered decisions and the lack of responsibility for anyone.”

He added: “It is not permissible to destroy our sector.”

Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati will hold a meeting of his Cabinet on Wednesday to approve a request for a financial advance from the Ministry of Energy to purchase fuel and gas to operate energy production plants. Energy Minister Walid Fayyad will not attend the session.
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