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Lebanon: Banks halt dollar withdrawals until airport reopens

Lebanese banks have suspended all dollar withdrawals until the airport reopens, AFP reported yesterday.

The move comes more than two weeks after the government announced a nationwide shutdown to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, which included shuttering land, sea and air borders to all but essential flows.

According to the AFP report, a member of the Association of Banks in Lebanon (ABL) said that "dollars are imported, and this is no longer possible because of the coronavirus," adding that "dollar importers have suspended work."

Last week the government extended the lockdown until 12 April, meaning Beirut's Rafic Hariri Airport – the country's only airport – will stay closed and dollar withdrawals unavailable at least until then.

The suspension of dollar withdrawals was announced as crowds of people flouted the government-mandated lockdown and formed queues outside banks in the north of the country yesterday.

Queuers were waiting to collect monthly salaries which had come through after two weeks of lockdown.

Capital controls have been in place since the start of anti-government protests in October last year, in some cases allowing depositors to access as little as $100 per week.

READ: Lebanon's Berri threatens to suspend cabinet support over coronavirus expat policy

Pegged at an exchange rate of 1,507.5 Lira to the dollar, which Lebanese banks still adhere to, the US currency is now worth more than 2,700 Lira to the dollar on the black market.

Yet despite worsening simultaneous financial and economic crises, the ABL announced that banks are "committed to transferring the appropriate amounts of money to Lebanese students residing abroad, if these students or their families have bank accounts in Lebanon," in a statement on Monday.

Coronavirus is affecting the world's economy - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Coronavirus is affecting the world's economy – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The statement added "that should Lebanese authorities decide to return willing students to Lebanon due to the current situation, the banks will be fully ready to transfer the costs of travel tickets in US dollars to the Middle East Airlines company."

READ: Lebanon: people without ID blocked from coronavirus testing

The group also announced plans to donate $6 million to government hospitals battling coronavirus in a press conference on 24 March, despite stringent capital controls which prevent depositors from accessing the US currency.

Failure of the government to compensate those who live hand-to-mouth and are unable to work because of the coronavirus shutdown has sparked anger, with protests taking place in the northern city of Tripoli, and in the Bekaa Valley on Monday night.

To date, Lebanon's health ministry has announced a total of 463 confirmed cases, including 11 deaths.

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