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UN chief on solidarity visit to crisis-stricken Lebanon

Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bouhabib, right, shakes hands with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as he arrives at Rafik Hariri International Airport in Beirut, Lebanon on Sunday, December 19, 2021 (AP Photo / Hassan Ammar)

BEIRUT (AP) – United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres arrived in Lebanon on Sunday for a high-profile visit which he says will focus on supporting the people of the crisis-stricken country.

Guterres is expected to push for reforms from the country’s political leaders, who have been deeply divided on key issues leading to paralysis of the government and parliament. Divisions have delayed key reforms needed to kick-start negotiations with the International Monetary Fund.

Politicians are also divided over the national inquiry into the disastrous Beirut port explosion in August 2020 that killed more than 216 people, injured thousands and exacerbated Lebanon’s problems after destroying large parts of the capital.

Guterres plans to visit the port to pay tribute to those killed in the blast and meet the families of the victims. He said his visit was dedicated to showing his support for the Lebanese and urging the leaders to take action to overcome the crisis. He also meets President Michel Aoun.

“When I was High Commissioner for Refugees, I came to Lebanon several times and I saw the solidarity of the Lebanese people with so many refugees. And I believe this is the time for all of us in the world to express the same solidarity with the Lebanese people, ”said Guterres upon his arrival. “So if there is one word to characterize my visit, that word is solidarity.”

In a message released Friday before his arrival, Guterres urged Lebanese political leaders to “put the people first” and implement reforms that promote accountability and transparency and stamp out corruption.

The economic collapse in Lebanon has been described as one of the worst in the world for over 150 years. Inflation and commodity prices have skyrocketed in Lebanon, which imports more than 80% of its commodities.

Shortages of basic supplies, including fuel and medicine, and restrictions on bank withdrawals and transfers, especially in foreign currencies, have heightened the desperation of the Lebanese in this once-middle-class country.

Poverty has increased exponentially as politicians, blamed for years of corruption and mismanagement, have failed to come up with drastic solutions to the crisis. International donors have extended humanitarian aid to Lebanon to deal with the crisis, but refuse to offer their support to the government until a reform plan is agreed.

Guterres also stressed that next year’s elections will be essential in laying the foundations for a better future.

Politicians are also divided over the date and details of the election, which is expected next spring. A decision by the country’s constitutional council is expected to settle the dispute.