100,000 Moslems, Christians Protest Inflation; Strike Ends
BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ More than 100,000 Moslems and Christians chanting ″No to hunger, no to the war 3/8″ united on Monday at the Green Line, a symbol of sectarian division, to protest Lebanon’s worst economic crisis.
A 5-day-old general strike that paralyzed much of the country ended after the three-hour rally. It was the biggest protest yet in a campaign against government failure to cope with the deteriorating economy and the Moslem and Christian militias that run much of the country after 12 years of civil war.
Antoine Bishara, President of the 300,000-member General Confederation of Labor Unions, declared the strike over following a government pledge to take action, but said that ″does not mean the end of the struggle.″
″Unless our demands are met, we shall continue our campaign by force, determination and all means, even if we have to call a resumption of the strike,″ he said.
About 50,000 Moslems scaled earthworks built by militias to join hands with Christians in the no-man’s land of the Green Line’s mid-city Museum crossing between Christian east Beirut and the Moslem west. Beirut has about 3 million residents.
″We can’t take it anymore,″ said Bahia Mortada, a Shiite Moslem housewife, hugging a woman from the Christian side. ″We want to eat. We want to live together. We hate the war and those behind it.″
Jacqueline Khoury, a 24-year-old Christian university student, declared: ″We want to live decently like other people in the world. Let the militias and their leaders fight their dirty war somewhere else.″
Similar protests occurred in the northern city of Tripoli and the southern ports of Sidon and Tyre.
In Amman, Jordan, Crown Prince Hassan said Arab leaders are discussing setting up a joint fund to support the Lebanese currency.
He spoke at a news conference on the second day of a summit conference of the 21-nation Arab League. Lebanon’s economic crisis is an ″urgent problem,″ the prince said.
″No more east side, no more west side 3/8 We want our country united 3/8,″ chanted 20,000 teen-agers taking part in the Beirut demonstration.
″There are always enough dollars to buy ammunition for civil war fighting, but when it comes to improving our living conditions, money disappears,″ read one placard.
Red-bereted riot police with automatic rifles patrolled the streets in jeeps and armored personnel carriers to prevent violence as the demonstrators snaked through the streets toward the line that divides east and west Beirut.
Armored cars stood outside major banks in both sectors of the capital. In west Beirut, Syrian peacekeeping troops watched from sandbagged positions set up on key road junctions.
The protest was headed by confederation leaders, who blamed the splintered government and rival militia leaderships for the economic crisis and the collapse of the Lebanese currency.
″You have changed the one-time Switzerland of the Middle East into a graveyard for the Lebanese,″ another banner read.
The economic crisis is the worst since Lebanon’s independence from France in 1943.
A sharp decline in the value of the pound against foreign currencies has sent prices skyhigh in a country that imports at least 85 percent of its needs.
The Lebanese pound was once the Middle East’s strongest currency. But it nosedived to a record low of 700 to the dollar from 2.5 to the dollar before the civil war broke out in April 1975.
The civil war violence has killed at least 130,000 people and displaced 1 million, one-quarter of the population.
Inflation, pegged at an annual rate of 9 percent before the war, has shot up to more than 200 percent now.
Accute shortages of food, fuel and other basic commodities have aggravated the people’s plight.
Long lines of housewives and motorists form daily outside bakeries and filling stations. Electricity is rationed to 12 hours a day.
The confederation’s strike, the first national shutdown in Lebanon’s history, was launched last Thursday.
Beirut airport, the country’s only civil aviation facility, and the capital’s seaport have been shut down along with government offices, schools, banks and businesses.
However, several seaside restaurants opened in Beirut over the weekend and many groceries and butcher’s shops reopened Monday.
Civil aviation sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Beirut airport was expected to reopen Tuesday.