First death reported in nationwide protests wracking Lebanon

BASSEM MROUE and ZEINA KARAM
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Lebanon Protests

University students chant slogans against the Lebanese government, in Beirut, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019. Protesters in Lebanon resumed demonstrations on Tuesday blocking some roads and governmental institutions. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

BEIRUT (AP) — A local official for a Lebanese political party was shot dead by soldiers trying to open a road closed by protesters in southern Beirut late Tuesday, the army reported, marking the first death in 27 days of nationwide protests.

An army statement said the man was shot in the Khaldeh neighborhood after an altercation during which a soldier opened fire to disperse the crowd, hitting one person. It said the army command had opened an investigation into the killing after arresting the soldier.

The incident was sure to inflame tensions already running high in the country, which has been engulfed by nationwide protests against the country's entire political class since Oct. 17. The leaderless, economically driven protests were triggered by new proposed taxes and have quickly evolved into the most spread and most sustained Lebanon has seen in years.

The man was identified as a local official with the Progressive Socialist Party headed by Walid Jumblatt, political leader of Lebanon's Druze community. It was confirmed by the party's Al-Anbaa newspaper.

Jumblatt told an angry crowd outside the hospital where the man died of his wounds to calm down, saying that "no one will protect us but the state." He added that he spoke with the army chief and was told about the investigation.

Protesters had poured into the streets Tuesday night closing roads around Lebanon after President Michel Aoun said in a televised interview that there could be further delays before a new government is formed.

He said it could take days to set a date for consultations with heads of parliamentary blocs for the naming of a new prime minister and added that the best option is for the new Cabinet to include both politicians and technocrats. Protesters have demanded a Cabinet without politicians

Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned his government Oct. 29 in response to the unprecedented nationwide protests since the middle of last month. The protests have snowballed into calls for the government to resign and for the entire political elite that has governed Lebanon since the end of its 1975-90 civil war to step aside.

Protesters are demanding a government made up of technocrats that would get immediately to work on the necessary reforms to address the worst economic and financial crisis Lebanon is passing through in decades. Politicians are divided among other things over whether the new Cabinet should be made up of experts only or include politicians.

Asked if Hariri would form the new government, Aoun said, "I cannot say before the consultations end."

When asked about the protesters and their demands, he said, "I invited them for a dialogue but did not hear back from them." He urged protesters to go back to their homes because demonstrations are blocking work in the country.

The president also warned that a negative attitude of protesters "will lead to counter negative attitude and this could lead to confrontation." Aoun was apparently referring to government supporters who have also demonstrated in support of the president over the past weeks.

"If you are going to continue this way (protesting) you will be striking at Lebanon, striking at your interests and we will all lose," Aoun said.

He urged people not to rush to banks to withdraw money, saying their deposits will be "guaranteed." He said Lebanon will be eventually able to come out of the crisis, though he didn't elaborate.

Lebanon's banking association said banks would stay closed due to a strike by employees as the country's financial crisis worsens. Banks were supposed to have reopened Tuesday following a three-day closure, but employees went on strike, complaining of aggressive behavior by customers.

Depositors have rushed to withdraw money in recent days amid the rapidly deteriorating economic and financial crisis.

Lebanon's financial troubles have worsened since the mass protests erupted.

The country's lenders have imposed varying capital controls that differ from bank to bank, triggering panic and anxiety among clients. Some have taken out their anger on employees.

The government has said it will continue to meet customer needs through ATM machines, but many Lebanese were unable to withdraw money Tuesday.