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French Version

Bakeries, mills lock horns over subsidized wheat

Economy and trade minister holds 'stormy' meeting to defuse situation

The tug-of-war between flour mills and bakeries took a new twist on Monday when angry rioters blocked a road near the Kuwaiti Embassy in Beirut for several hours to protest an acute shortage of flour in the southern suburbs.

The army and Internal Security Forces eventually removed the burning tires and rounded up some of the rioters.

Sources said the angry protest was fueld by a rumor that some mills had refused to deliver flour to bakeries in the southern suburbs.

The bakery syndicate accuses the 13 mills operating in Lebanon of deliberately delaying the delivery of subsidized flour.

Kazem Ibrahim, the head of the bakery syndicate, said that as long as the mills deliver them a ton of flour for a subsidized price of LL480,000, the bakeries will sell 1,120 grams of Arabic flatbread at LL1,500.

Ibrahim warned that the bakeries would close down on Wednesday if the mills refused to deliver all the flour on time.

The mills claim that the government subsidies are not sufficient to reduce the losses they are incurring due to the sharp rise in the prices of wheat in the international markets.

To alleviate the tense mood in the country, Economy and Trade Minister Sami Haddad held what participants described as a "stormy" three-hour meeting with representatives of the mills and bakeries at the Grand Serail.

Haddad said there was no need to panic because there are abundant quantities of flour and bread in the local market.

He promised to set up a joint committee to review the delivery of flour to the bakeries.

Haddad admitted that some of the mills were not delivering the flour to all the bakeries.

"There are a number of mills that are behaving irresponsibly and greedily and this form of manner is not acceptable," the minister said.

He threatened that the government will act if the mills refused to deliver the subsidized flour to the bakeries.

"We insist on keeping the price of 1,1120 grams of Arabic bread at LL1,500 and this issue is not subject to negotiations," Haddad said.

Lebanon imports more than 360,000 tons of wheat annually, most of which is used to make Arabic bread.

The minister said that flour subsidies do no apply to pizza, cakes or mankousheh.

The high prices of wheat in the international market compelled the government to increase the subsidies on flour to avoid social unrest.

The government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is already coming under sharp criticism from trade unions, farmers and consumer groups for failing to tackle the high cost of living and raising the minimum monthly wages.

The General Labor Confederation, public transport workers and farmers are expected to abide by a general strike on January 25 to force the government to address the minimum wage and end the high cost of living.

Beirut 15-01-2008
The Daily Star

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