Taliban expand economic team as Afghan crisis deepens

(Reuters) – Afghanistan’s Taliban government bolstered its economic team on Tuesday, naming a commerce minister and two deputies as the group tries to revive a financial system in shock from the abrupt end to billions of dollars in foreign aid.

Nooruddin Azizi, a businessman from Panjshir province north of Kabul, was named as acting minister of commerce and industry and would start work immediately, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told a news conference.

Azizi joins the acting finance minister and minister for economic affairs, both of whom were announced previously, in a team facing a daunting task.

Exacerbated by a drought that threatens to leave millions of people hungry, the economic crisis is among the biggest challenges facing the Taliban 20 years after they were driven from power by a U.S.-led campaign in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

“We are working day and night on this and on making sure that the economic issue is resolved as soon as possible,” Mujahid told reporters.

He did not give concrete proposals as to how this could be achieved, but did promise that government workers who have been unpaid since at least July would start receiving salaries soon.

Underlining the economic pressures building on Afghanistan’s new government, prices for staples like flour, fuel and rice have risen and long queues are still forming outside banks as they strictly ration withdrawals.

Some humanitarian aid has started to arrive and limited trade has returned across land borders with Pakistan, but a severe cash shortage is crippling day-to-day economic activity and decades of war have left much infrastructure in tatters.

Foreign aid payments, which accounted for 40% of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, have all but stopped as the West considers how to deal with a group that, until August, led a deadly insurgency against the U.S.-backed government.

Amruddin, a former member of the provincial council in the northern city of Kunduz, said farmers caught up in the war during the harvest season and the dire state of some of the country’s roads meant much of the produce had gone to waste.

“Kunduz is known as the bread basket of Afghanistan, but the economic situation, especially the agriculture situation in Kunduz, is miserable,” he said. “Farmers could not get products like melon and grapes to Kabul due to all the problems.”

BUSINESS DOWN

In the cities, normally bustling commercial areas are unusually quiet, and impromptu markets have sprung up where people try to sell their household goods to raise cash.

Even before the Taliban seized Kabul on Aug. 15, 47% of the population lived in poverty, according to the Asian Development Bank, and a third survived on the equivalent of $1.90 a day.

While many people welcomed the end to 20 years of fighting between the Taliban and ousted Afghan forces supported by foreign troops, the economic crisis is causing the new government increasing concern.

Afghanistan’s central bank has been blocked from accessing more than $9 billion in foreign reserves held outside the country, and Mujahid said millions of dollars belonging to the state had disappeared before the Taliban entered the capital.

He said officials were making efforts to find out what happened to the missing cash that he said had been taken out of banks before the government of President Ashraf Ghani collapsed.

Banks are limiting withdrawals to $200 or 20,000 afghani a week for private citizens and many people say they cannot even access that. Potentially more serious in the longer term is the lack of work.

“Unfortunately, there are no job opportunities for us,” said one Kabul resident, who declined to give his name. He said he earned 1,000-1,500 afghani a day before the Taliban arrived but now had nothing.

(Writing by James Mackenzie)

Taliban go door-to-door telling fearful Afghans to work

(Reuters) – Armed Taliban members knocked on doors in cities across Afghanistan on Wednesday, witnesses said, telling fearful residents to return to their jobs a day after the militants announced they wanted to revive the country’s battered economy.

Widespread destruction during a 20-year war between U.S.-backed government forces and the Taliban, the drop in local spending due to departing foreign troops, a tumbling currency and lack of dollars are fueling economic crisis in the country.

In their first press conference since seizing the capital Kabul, the Taliban on Tuesday promised peace, prosperity, and appeared to depart from previous rules of banning women from work. But many people remain wary.

Wasima, 38, said she was shocked when three Taliban members with guns visited her home in the western city of Herat on Wednesday morning. They took down her details, enquired about her job at an aid organization and her salary and told her to resume working, she said.

A dozen people told Reuters there had been unannounced visits from the Taliban in the past 24 hours, from the capital Kabul to Lashkar Gah in the south and northern Mazar-i-Sharif.

They did not wish to give their full names, for fear of reprisals.

As well as encouraging people to work, some said they also felt the checks were designed to intimidate and instill fear of the new leadership.

A Taliban spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the visits.

Many businesses in the capital Kabul remain closed and large parts of the city have been deserted since the Taliban captured it on Sunday at the end of a lightning sweep across the country.

The only major traffic in the usually congested capital was at the airport, where people are trying to flee the country aboard diplomatic evacuation flights, residents said.

Seventeen people were injured in a stampede there on Wednesday, and the Taliban said they fired in the air to disperse crowds.

At Tuesday’s press conference, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the Islamist movement was seeking good relations with other countries to allow economic revival and “prosperity to come out of this crisis.”

But some are skeptical of the Taliban, who during their previous rule from 1996-2001 dictated that women could not work and girls were not allowed to attend school, and imposed punishments such as public stoning.

Presenter Shabnam Dawran said in a video shared on Twitter on Wednesday that she was turned away from her job on Afghanistan’s state-owned Radio Television Afghanistan.

“They told me that the regime has changed. You are not allowed, go home,” she said.

The Taliban and the news organization did not immediately comment on the incident.

Wasima, who watched the Taliban’s news briefing with her two daughters, said she feared that opportunities for women would diminish under the Taliban, even if they were now urging her back to work.

“The Taliban say women should work but I know for a fact that opportunities will shrink,” she said.

(Reporting by Kabul newsroom and Rupam Jain; Writing by John Geddie; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

One month after Cuba protests, hundreds remain behind bars

By Sarah Marsh

HAVANA (Reuters) – Hundreds of people, including dozens of dissident artists and opposition activists, remain detained in Communist-run Cuba a month after unprecedented anti-government protests, according to rights groups.

Thousands took to the streets nationwide on July 11 to protest a dire economic crisis and curbs on civil rights. The government said the unrest was fomented by counter-revolutionaries exploiting hardship caused largely by U.S. sanctions.

Rights group Cubalex has recorded around 800 detentions, a number that has risen daily as relatives come forward. Many are still too afraid to report the arrest of family members, said Cubalex director Laritza Diversent.

While 249 people have been released, many to house arrest, most remain in “preventative jail,” she said. The whereabouts of 10 people is unknown.

Dozens have already been sentenced to up to a year in prison or correctional work in summary trials, with simplified procedures and often without the chance of hiring a defense lawyer on time, said Diversent.

“The government’s aim is to make an example of those who protested, to stop others from doing the same,” she said.

The government did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Cuban authorities have not given a figure for the total number of detained in the recent unrest but say they have so far carried out trials for 62 people, 22 of which had hired a lawyer. All but one have been deemed guilty of crimes including public disorder, resisting arrest, and vandalism, they said.

The protests were largely peaceful, although state media showed some demonstrators looting and throwing stones at police. One person died and several people, including government supporters, were injured, authorities have confirmed.

Several of those sentenced were not protesting, but were caught up in the unrest, according to their relatives.

Yaquelin Salas, 35, says her husband intervened peacefully in the arrest of a woman, calling on police agents to not treat her so aggressively. Now he is serving a 10-month prison sentence on charges of public disorder after a collective trial in which just two of the 12 detained had lawyers.

“What they are doing is totally unfair,” said Salas.

Since Cuba’s 1959 revolution, authorities have tightly controlled public spaces, saying unity is key to resisting coup attempts by the United States, which has long openly sought to force political change through sanctions and democracy initiatives. The White House has said it will do what it can to support Cuban protesters.

FAMILIES ‘SILENCED’

Gabriela Zequeira, 17, one of several minors detained in the protests, said she was sentenced to house arrest for eight months after being arrested while walking home from the hairdressers on July 11.

Upon her admission to jail, where she was kept 10 days incommunicado, she said she was required to put a finger in her vagina to show she was concealing nothing as part of a strip search. Officers kept interrupting her attempts to sleep and one officer made sexual taunts, she said in an interview.

The Cuban government initially said no minors had been detained, a statement later contradicted by state prosecutors.

Some relatives of those detained said authorities were pressuring them to stop speaking out.

“My family has been silenced,” said emigre Milagros Beirut from her home in Spain. She said four of her relatives in Havana and the eastern city of Guantanamo remained behind bars for protesting peacefully. “They’ve been told those detained will receive a stricter sentence if they say anything.”

Dozens of political activists and dissident artists were among the detained, including some who did not participate in the protests but appeared to have been arrested pre-emptively, said Diversent from Cubalex.

Jose Daniel Ferrer, the leader of Cuba’s largest opposition group, and Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, head of a dissident artists collective, were both arrested on their way to the protests before even arriving, according to their supporters.

Ferrer’s sister Ana Belkis Ferrer said the family had not been able to speak to or see him, a complaint of many relatives of those detained.

“We don’t know if he’s being beaten, if he’s well or not, whether or not he’s doing a hunger strike,” she said.

Another detained activist, Félix Navarro, 68, president of the Party for Democracy, was in hospital with COVID-19, said Diversent. Several of those detained have denounced unsanitary conditions in jail amid one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/coronavirus-surge-pushes-cubas-healthcare-system-brink-2021-08-11 in the world.

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh and Reuters TV in Havana, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Beirut marks year since port blast with demands for justice

By Imad Creidi

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Thousands of Lebanese gathered near the port of Beirut on Wednesday to mark the first anniversary of a catastrophic explosion that devastated the city, demanding justice for the victims.

One year since the disaster, caused by a huge quantity of ammonium nitrate stored unsafely at the port for years, no senior official has been held to account, infuriating many Lebanese as their country also endures financial collapse.

One of the biggest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded, the explosion wounded thousands and was felt in Cyprus, more than 240 km (150 miles) away.

An investigation is stalling with requests denied for immunity to be lifted from senior politicians and former officials. All those sought for questioning by the Lebanese investigators have denied any wrongdoing.

“We will not forget and we will not forgive them ever. And if they can’t bring them to account, we will by our own hands,” said Hiyam al-Bikai, dressed in black and clutching a picture of her son, Ahmad, who was killed when masonry fell on his car.

A huge banner on a building overlooking the port said: “Hostages of a Murderous State.”

French President Emmanuel Macron, who has led Western pressure for reform in Lebanon, said its leaders owed the people the truth and heaped new criticism on the governing elite for failing to deal with the economic crisis.

The damage is still visible across much of Beirut. The port resembles a bomb site, its huge wrecked grain silo unrepaired.

Thousands of people, waving Lebanese flags and holding pictures of the dead, had marched towards the port, where prayers are expected to be held just after 6 p.m. (1500 GMT), coinciding with the time of the blast.

“We want our rights – the rights of the martyrs and victims. Their immunities are not more dear than the blood of the martyrs and victims,” said Hanan Hoteit, whose relative, Tharwat, was killed at the port.

A Human Rights Watch report released this week concluded there was strong evidence to suggest some Lebanese officials knew about and tacitly accepted the lethal risks posed by ammonium nitrate.

Reuters reported last August that Prime Minister Hassan Diab and President Michel Aoun were both warned in July last year that the chemicals posed a security risk and could destroy the capital if they exploded.

Aoun has said he is ready to testify if needed, and that he supports an impartial investigation.

Diab, who quit after the blast, has said his conscience is clear.

The chemicals arrived on a Russian-leased cargo ship that made an unscheduled stop in Beirut in 2013. An FBI report seen by Reuters last week estimated around 552 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded, less than the 2,754 tonnes that arrived.

That discrepancy is one of the many questions that remain unanswered. No one ever came forward to claim the shipment.

PRAYERS

Leading prayers at a hospital that was badly damaged in the blast, Greek Orthodox Archbishop Elias Audi said the investigation must continue until punishment is meted out to those who deserve it.

Nobody was above the law, he said, and “whoever obstructs justice is a criminal, even if they are highly placed.”

At the time of the explosion, Lebanese were already facing deepening hardship due to the financial crisis caused by decades of state corruption and waste.

The meltdown worsened throughout the last year with the governing elite failing to establish a new cabinet to start tackling the crisis even as poverty has soared and medicines and fuel have run out.

Hosting a donors’ conference for Lebanon, Macron pledged a further 100 million euros ($120 million) in emergency aid and 500,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines. He is trying to raise more than $350 million.

“Lebanese leaders seem to bet on a stalling strategy, which I regret and I think is a historic and moral failure,” he said.

Pope Francis wished Macron success and said donors should help Lebanon “on a path of resurrection.” He said he had a great desire to visit Lebanon, where many had lost “even the illusion of living.”

The state has taken no steps towards reforms that might ease the economic crisis, with the sectarian elite locked in a power struggle over cabinet posts.

(Additional reporting by Philip Pullella at Vatican City and Michel Rose in Paris; Writing By Maha El Dahan/Tom Perry; Editing by Giles Elgood and Angus MacSwan)

Cubans turn to herbal remedies, barter amid medicine scarcity

By Rodrigo Gutierrez

HAVANA (Reuters) – Dayana Rodriguez says her son is overwhelmed with scabies but she has not been able to find any of the treatments prescribed by their doctor at the poorly-stocked pharmacies in Havana so she is now turning to a herbal remedy instead.

Even as Cuba is leading the race to become the first country in Latin America to develop its own COVID-19 vaccine, the country is suffering acute shortages of basic medicines amid its worst economic crisis in decades.

“There aren’t any of the ones they prescribed him, Benzyl benzoate, or the other one for itching too that used to be in all the pharmacies,” said Rodriguez, buying medicinal plants at a shop on a commercial boulevard in Central Havana.

Nine families in Havana told Reuters they were struggling to treat outbreaks of scabies, a highly infectious yet preventable skin disease, due to medicine shortages.

Three doctors consulted by Reuters who declined to be named said they had resorted to advising their patients to boil up a mix of herbs to apply to their skin to provide temporary relief for scabies as it was futile to prescribe medicines that are scarce. One of those doctors also recommended a veterinary treatment for one of his patients.

Cuba’s healthcare system, built by late leader Fidel Castro, is one of the revolution’s most treasured achievements, having produced results on a par with rich nations using the resources of a developing country and in spite of the decades-old U.S. trade embargo.

But cash woes in the ailing state economy since the fall of former benefactor the Soviet Union have taken their toll on both healthcare facilities and the availability of medicine.

Over the past few years, the decline in aid from ally Venezuela, new U.S. sanctions and the pandemic have plunged Cuba into its worst economic crisis since the 1990s.

Health Minister Jose Portal reported on state television last year that as of June around a 116 basic medicines were scarce. Of those, 87 were produced locally and 29 imported.

Florencio Chavez, who has run a medicinal plant shop for 25 years, recommends guacamaya francesa, cundeamor, neem, Parthenium hysterophorus to treat scabies. He says demand for herbal remedies has risen in recent years.

Cubans have also set up groups on social media to barter medicines or other products for those they need, while the black market is thriving on the streets and online.

CHRONIC SHORTAGES

Cuban authorities started talking about chronic shortages of drugs, including basic ones like those treating hypertension and contraceptives due to a cash crunch in 2017, saying it had had to slash imports of inputs necessary for local production.

Last year, the country said shipping delays due to the pandemic had exacerbated the situation, as had U.S. sanctions.

While medicine is theoretically exempt from sanctions, the sanctions still are a strong disincentive to overseas medical providers, who might risk being fined, and the embargo hurts the economy across the board so there is less cash for imports.

Some senior citizens like Yolanda Perez, 80, who suffers from glaucoma, complain they do not have the stamina needed to line up at pharmacies overnight in the hope of grabbing their share of scant deliveries.

“It’s been six months since I was last able to get my latanoprost,” the drug that helps prevent her from going blind, she said.

Authorities in the eastern province of Holguin in January warned Cubans not to turn to the black market though because some drugs were not what they advertised and could even be harmful.

“The problem is people are despairing over the lack of medicine,” wrote a reader identified as Arcela under an article on the topic in state outlet Juventud Rebelde. She said her sister had had to buy black market antibiotics.

“That’s why they resort to these methods.”

(Reporting by Reuters TV; Writing by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Christian Plumb and Aurora Ellis)

Lebanon sets starting point for sea border negotiations with Israel

BEIRUT (Reuters) – President Michel Aoun on Thursday specified Lebanon’s starting point for demarcating its sea border with Israel under U.S.-mediated talks, in the first public confirmation of a stance sources say increases the size of the disputed area.

Israel and Lebanon launched the negotiations last month with delegations from the long-time foes convening at a U.N. base to try to agree on the border that has held up hydrocarbon exploration in the potentially gas-rich area.

A presidency statement said Aoun instructed the Lebanese team that the demarcation line should start from the land point of Ras Naqoura as defined under a 1923 agreement and extend seaward in a trajectory that a security source said extends the disputed area to some 2,300 square km (888 sq. miles) from around 860 sq. km.

Israel’s energy minister, overseeing the talks with Lebanon, said Lebanon had now changed its position seven times and was contradicting its own assertions.

“Whoever wants prosperity in our region and seeks to safely develop natural resources must adhere to the principle of stability and settle the dispute along the lines that were submitted by Israel and Lebanon at the United Nations,” Yuval Steinitz said.

Any deviation, Steinitz said, would lead to a “dead end”.

Last month sources said the two sides presented contrasting maps for proposed borders. They said the Lebanese proposal extended farther south than the border Lebanon had years before presented to the United Nations and that of the Israeli team pushed the boundary farther north than Israel’s original position.

The talks, the culmination of three years of diplomacy by Washington, are due to resume in December.

Israel pumps gas from huge offshore fields but Lebanon, which has yet to find commercial gas reserves in its own waters, is desperate for cash from foreign donors as it faces the worst economic crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war.

(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

World must not play politics with Lebanon’s pain, Iran says

By Maher Chmaytelli

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The global community should help Lebanon rather than impose its will on the country, Iran’s foreign minister said while in Beirut on Friday, following the catastrophic blast at the city’s port that killed 172 people and pushed the government to resign.

Iran backs Lebanon’s powerful armed movement Hezbollah, which along with its allies helped form the outgoing government. The United States classifies Hezbollah as a terrorist group.

Mohammed Javad Zarif was speaking after meeting President Michel Aoun, who had earlier met with U.S. and French officials in a flurry of Western diplomacy that has focused on urging Lebanon to fight corruption and enact long-delayed reforms to unlock foreign financial aid to tackle an economic crisis.

“There should be international efforts to help Lebanon, not to impose anything on it,” Zarif said in televised comments.

He earlier remarked that the Lebanese people and their representatives should decide on the future of Lebanon. “It is not humane to exploit the pain and suffering of the people for political goals,” he said.

Lebanese had been staging angry protests against a political elite blamed for the country’s many woes even before the Aug 4. blast, which injured 6,000, damaged swathes of the Mediterranean city and left 300,000 homeless. Some 30 people remain missing.

The explosion sharply deepened anger at the authorities.

“We can’t live like this. The West has to pressure our leaders to save us,” said Iyaam Ghanem, a Beirut pharmacist.

U.S. Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale and French Defense Minister Florence Parly met separately with Aoun on Friday.

Parly in televised remarks later called for the formation of a government capable of taking “courageous decisions”.

CALLS FOR JUSTICE

Hale said on Thursday the United States’ FBI would join a probe into the blast at a hangar in the port where highly-explosive material detonated in a mushroom cloud. Hale called for an end to “dysfunctional governments and empty promises”.

International humanitarian aid has poured in but foreign states have linked any financial assistance to reform of the Lebanese state, which has defaulted on its huge sovereign debts.

Zarif said Tehran and private Iranian companies were ready to help with reconstruction and rehabilitating Lebanon’s electricity sector, which is a chief target of reform.

France’s navy helicopter carrier Tonnerre docked at the port, where authorities say more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had been stored for years without safety measures.

Aoun told Hale that Beirut needed help to “understand the circumstances” under which the nitrate shipment was brought into the port and unloaded, an official statement said.

Aoun has said the probe would look into whether the cause was negligence, an accident or “external interference”.

Victims and their representatives told reporters that only an independent probe would deliver justice, appealing to the U.N. Security Council for an international investigation and the referral of the blast to an international court.

“Is it acceptable that people find their homes shattered, their families killed, their hopes and their dreams killed, with no justice,” said Paul Najjar, whose three-year-old daughter Alexandra died in the blast.

State news agency NNA said questioning of some ministers due on Friday had been postponed as the judge appointed for the task said he did not have authority to question government ministers.

The cabinet resignation has fueled uncertainty. Agreement on a new government will likely be very difficult in a country with deep factional rifts and a sectarian power-sharing system.

Senior Christian cleric Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, who wants Beirut kept out of regional conflicts, said a new Lebanon was being “cooked in kitchens” of foreign countries, which he did not name, to serve the interest of politicians.

(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli, Michael Georgy and Beirut and Dubai bureaus; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Gareth Jones, William Maclean)

What you need to know about the coronavirus right now 6-4-20

(Reuters) – Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now:

A triple whammy of crises

Battered by crisis after crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump appears to be in political peril as never before.

Since taking office in 2017, Trump has weathered storm after storm, always emerging with a fighting chance at re-election. After he survived an impeachment trial that saw him acquitted by the Republican-led Senate on Feb. 5, things looked up.

Now Trump’s Teflon shield is being put to an acid test as he faces a triple whammy – the biggest public health crisis in a century, the worst economic downturn in generations and the largest civil unrest since the 1960s.

Europe pins hopes on smarter apps

European countries cautiously emerging from the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic are looking to a second generation of contact tracing apps to help contain further outbreaks.

The latest apps have big advantages over earlier ones as they work on Apple’s iPhone, one of the most popular smartphones in Europe, and do not rely on centralized databases that could compromise privacy.

Switzerland, Latvia and Italy have opted for Bluetooth short-range radio for their apps, based on technology from Apple and Google that securely logs exchanges on the smartphones of people who have been near each other.

Global vaccine summit

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hosts a global vaccine summit on Thursday, urging nations to pledge funding for vaccinations against infectious diseases to help the poorest countries tackle the coronavirus crisis.

Representatives of more than 50 countries, including 35 heads of state or government, will come together virtually in London to raise funds for the GAVI vaccine alliance, a public-private global health partnership.

‘Simplified’ Olympics

It may be necessary to stage a “simplified” Olympics next year due to the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said on Thursday.

The Yomiuri newspaper, citing government and organizing committee sources, said having fewer spectators, making Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests mandatory for all spectators – in addition to athletes and staff – and limiting movement in and out of the athletes’ village were among the options Japan would discuss with the International Olympics Committee.

Drive-through Botox

Quarantined Florida residents worried about their laughter lines and crows’ feet need frown no longer – Botox is back, and it’s being offered at a drive-through.

On May 4, the U.S. state allowed a partial relaxing of restrictions imposed to slow the coronavirus pandemic. That means certain elective medical procedures could resume, including Botox injections and cosmetic surgery.

(Compiled by Karishma Singh and Nick Tattersall)

Lebanon’s most senior Christian cleric steps into crisis

Lebanon’s most senior Christian cleric steps into crisis
By Ellen Francis and Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s highest Christian authority called on Wednesday for a change in government to include qualified technocrats and urged the president to begin talks to address demands of demonstrators in the streets for a seventh day.

Throwing his weight behind demands for at least some change in government, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai was the first major religious figure to wade into the crisis.

With a population of 6 million people including around 1 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon has been swept by unprecedented protests against a political elite blamed for a deep economic crisis.

Flag-waving protesters kept roads blocked around the country with vehicles and makeshift barricades on Wednesday, while banks and schools remained shut.

Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s government announced an emergency reform package on Monday, to try to defuse the anger of protesters demanding his government resigns and also to steer the heavily indebted state away from a looming financial crisis.

Rai said the measures were welcome but also required replacing current ministers with technocrats.

He did not demand Hariri’s resignation.

Hariri’s government, which took office at the start of the year, groups nearly all of the main parties in the Lebanese sectarian power-sharing system.

“The list of reforms is a positive first step but it requires amending the ministers and renewing the administrative team with national, qualified figures,” Rai said in a televised speech.

“We call on the president of the republic … to immediately begin consultations with the political leadership and the heads of the sects to take the necessary decisions regarding the people’s demands,” Rai said.

The president is drawn from his Christian Maronite community.

Political sources said a reshuffle was being discussed. One told Reuters the idea of a change in government was “starting to mature”. “But it is not there yet. Not everyone is at the same state of emergency,” the source said.

“The street is imposing its rhythm on the political class, the political class has to be dynamic with it. It is a standoff – who will concede first?” the source said.

GLOBAL UNREST

Lebanon’s unrest is the latest in a flare-up of political protests around the world – from Hong Kong and Barcelona to Quito and Santiago – each having its own trigger but sharing some underlying frustrations.

Lebanese army troops scuffled with demonstrators on Wednesday as they struggled to unblock main roads.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a Shi’ite Muslim, said Lebanon could not remain in such chaos and said he feared any power vacuum.

“Everything the political class is doing now is clearly to buy time … the reform list is a lie. Today the demand is for the government to fall,” said Manal Ghanem, a protester at a barricade in Beirut.

“We want to get an interim government that holds early elections … We need to stay strong, to stay in the streets,” said Ghanem, a university graduate who works in a coffee shop.

Lebanon’s economy, whose mainstays include construction and tourism, has suffered years of low growth linked to regional turmoil. Capital inflows from abroad, critical to financing the state deficit, have ebbed.

Lebanon has one of the world’s highest levels of public debt compared to the size of its economy at around 150%.

The powerful Shi’ite group Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and heavily armed, said on Saturday it was against the government resigning and the country did not have enough time for such a move given the acute financial crisis.

The moves announced by Hariri on Monday included the halving of salaries of ministers and lawmakers, as well as steps toward implementing long-delayed measures vital to fixing state finances.

Under pressure to convince foreign donors he can slash next year’s budget deficit, Hariri has said the central bank and commercial banks would contribute 5.1 trillion Lebanese pounds ($3.4 billion) to help plug the gap, including through an increase in taxes on bank profits.

Hariri met Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh on Wednesday following his return from Washington, where the governor attended International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank meetings. He also met a delegation from the Association of Banks in Lebanon.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis, Eric Knecht, Tom Perry and Reuters TV; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Giles Elgood and Andrew Cawthorne)

In Venezuela talks, Maduro allies said they would consider fresh elections: sources

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognised as the country's rightful interim ruler, attends a session of Venezuela's National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela August 13, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero/File Photo

By Mayela Armas and Corina Pons

CARACAS (Reuters) – Allies of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro had discussed holding a presidential election in the coming months during talks to find a breakthrough in the country’s political crisis, four sources told Reuters on Monday.

Opposition politicians will travel to Washington to speak to U.S. officials this week, the sources said.

Maduro and a delegation representing opposition leader Juan Guaido have been meeting in Barbados as part of talks to resolve a political stalemate in the struggling OPEC nation that is suffering from a hyperinflationary economic collapse.

Guaido’s delegation had proposed a presidential vote in six to nine months on a number of conditions including changes to the elections council and supreme court, said the sources, who asked not to be identified because the talks are confidential.

The government had, in theory, agreed to a presidential vote on the condition that the United States lift economic sanctions, Maduro be allowed to run as the Socialist Party candidate, and that the vote be held in a year, one of the sources said.

However, the government has since pulled out of the talks to protest a new round of sanctions by Washington, and no new date has been set to resume the discussions, despite a visit by Norway foreign ministry officials – acting as mediators – seeking to revive them.

U.S. officials have expressed support for an election but without Maduro as a candidate, which may be a point of discussion, two of the sources said.

Venezuela’s information ministry, Norway’s foreign ministry and the U.S. State Department did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

Preparing the groundwork for an election requires a raft of changes to state institutions, including both the elections council and the supreme court – both of which have aggressively intervened in election processes to favor Maduro.

Another possible roadblock would be the existence of the Constituent Assembly, an all-powerful legislative body controlled by Socialist Party supporters that opposition leaders say could also intervene in any potential vote.

(Reporting by Mayela Armas and Corina Pons in Caracas; additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)