BEIRUT (AFP) — Lebanon’s army seized fuel from gas stations on Saturday to curb hoarding amid crippling shortages, as the central bank chief stood firm on his decision to scrap fuel subsidies.
Compounding the country’s crisis, a top private hospital said it may have to close due to power outages caused by shortages of diesel, warning this could cause hundreds of deaths.
Lebanon is grappling with a financial crisis branded by the World Bank as one of the planet’s worst since the 1850s.
Foreign currency reserves are rapidly depleting, forcing the central bank to scale down funding for imports in an effort to shore up the little money Lebanon has left.
The Lebanese pound has lost more than 90 percent of its value on the black market, and 78% of the population lives below the poverty line.
On Wednesday, Lebanese central bank chief Riad Salameh said he would scrap fuel subsidies to ease pressure on fast-depleting foreign reserves.
His decision sparked panic, with huge lines forming outside bakeries and gas stations as Lebanese struggled to stock up.
Salameh told a radio station on Saturday that he would not back down on his decision.
“I will not review the removal of subsidies on fuel unless the use of compulsory reserves is legalized” by a parliamentary vote, he said.
Fuel shortages have left many with just two hours of electricity a day, forcing the closure of many businesses.
Warning of “imminent disaster,” the American University of Beirut Medical Center said it would be forced to cease operations within 48 hours.
Without fuel, “forty adult patients and fifteen children living on respirators will die immediately,” it said in a statement.
“One hundred and eighty people suffering from renal failure will die poisoned after a few days… Hundreds of cancer patients, adults and children, will die in subsequent weeks.”
Fuel importers blame the crisis on delays by the central bank in opening credit lines to fund imports.
On Saturday, Salameh accused importers and distributors of hoarding fuel to sell at higher prices on the black market, or across the border in Syria.
With the situation rapidly deteriorating, the army raided gas stations on Saturday and seized fuel to distribute to desperate customers.
A statement said that the military had confiscated more than 78,000 liters (20,605 gallons) of gasoline stored at two gas stations, as well as 57,000 liters (15,057 gallons) of diesel fuel from a third one.
Internal Security Forces also said they had seized thousands of liters of gas and diesel fuel stockpiled at one gas pump.
Pictures and video footage posted by the army on its social media pages showed soldiers working pumps at gas stations and filling up car tanks.
An AFP correspondent said that troops were deployed at several gas stations north of Beirut, where hundreds of vehicles were trapped in long lines in order to fill up on gas.
Video footage posted online showed motorists cheering as the army raided gas stations.
Later, many gas stations across the country, which had been closed claiming they had no fuel, reopened.
But some Lebanese people remained bitter.
“The army’s decision is too late,” said one motorist who had been waiting for hours in the scorching heat.
The central bank’s funding of fuel and other basic commodity imports has contributed to foreign reserves falling by more than 50% from their pre-crisis level of more than $30 billion.
Salameh said that inaction by politicians has led Lebanon to a breaking point.
“Everybody was aware… they were aware in government, parliament and the president’s office” that reserves were falling, he said.
Salameh has headed the central bank since 1993 and is suspected by many Lebanese of helping facilitate large transfers of money abroad by the political elite during mass protests that began in October 2019.
He is under judicial investigation in Lebanon, Switzerland and France, over several cases, including diversion of public funds and illicit enrichment.
In Lebanon, many blame him for capital controls, in place since 2019, that have trapped dollar savings and denied even the poorest segment of the population full access to their deposits.
Political wrangling over a new government has added to Lebanon’s dire situation.
The last cabinet resigned amid public outrage, following last August’s monster explosion at the Port of Beirut that killed more than 200 people.
International donors have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Lebanon.
But the aid is conditional on the formation of a new government prepared to spearhead reforms, and on the resumption of talks with the International Monetary Fund.