US threatens ‘punitive actions,’ Hariri in Russia, port blast detainees ordered released: Everything you need to know to start your Friday

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Caretaker Energy Minister Raymond Ghajar said “the main reason” behind the shortage of subsidized fuel is smuggling to Syria. (Credit: João Sousa/L’Orient Today)

Lebanese politicians who continue to block reforms may face “punitive actions,” a senior US diplomat warned. Following a meeting with President Michel Aoun, David Hale warned that those who “continue to obstruct progress” of government formation open themselves up to “punitive actions,” without providing any further detail about the potential American measures. He added that the US is ready to facilitate maritime border negotiations between Lebanon and Israel based on the initial claims when discussions started last year. In response, the president’s office said that Lebanon “has the right to develop its position” on maritime border negotiations “in line with its interests,” referring to the country’s claims of an additional 1,400 square kilometers of territorial waters.

Saad Hariri asked Russia for medical and financial support while on a visit to Moscow. During a meeting with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Lebanon’s premier-designate asked Russia to urge its businessmen to invest in Lebanon once a cabinet is formed and carries out reforms. Hariri said that Lebanon provides “real” investment opportunities to Russian businessmen due to lower prices resulting from the economic crisis. He also asked for help securing Sputnik V COVID-19 shots, highlighting that Lebanon hosts about 1.5 million refugees. The Russian vaccine is currently only distributed through private channels in Lebanon after a Lebanese businessman purchased 1 million doses. The Future Movement, Hariri’s party, has already launched a program to register people for vaccines.

The lead investigator into the Beirut port blast approved the release of six of 25 people detained in the wake of the explosion. The six include two civilian employees, two Customs staff sergeants and two majors, including State Security Maj. Joseph Naddaf, who had warned authorities about the ammonium nitrate explosive before the blast. Judge Tarek Bitar rejected the release of any of the 19 other detainees, including Customs chief Badri Daher and his predecessor Chafic Merhi. Despite months of investigation, very little information has been made public and no answers have been provided as to the cause of the explosion, nor have any political authorities been held accountable.

The energy minister blamed gasoline shortages on smuggling to Syria. After a meeting chaired by caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab, Raymond Ghajar said that “the main reason” behind the shortage of subsidized fuel is smuggling to Syria, which has surged due to the difference in prices between Lebanon and Syria, allowing for huge profits. He added that subsidies won’t be lifted before implementing ration cards as part of a subsidy retargeting plan. However, while fuel suppliers say smuggling is a factor in shortages, they primarily blame the central bank for delaying subsidized payments to import gasoline at the official peg of LL1,507.5 to the dollar.

The education minister announced a gradual reopening of schools starting April 21. Schools will reopen their doors on April 21 for final-year high schoolers, May 5 for brevet students and kindergarten children, and May 17 for all remaining students. Tarek Majzoub also announced that the brevet exams, for ninth graders, will take place on July 12 and the baccalaureate exams, for graduating high schoolers, on July 26. The decision comes after the national COVID-19 committee’s recommendation on Wednesday to gradually reopen the education sector. Due to the disruption caused by COVID-19 lockdowns and lack of access to online classes, some 1 million children have missed out on education for over a year.

 

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