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French Version

Lebanon's markets calm but planned strike looms (Daily Star)

Business community wants Syria out

Lebanese markets have been relatively calm since the murder of former Premier Rafik Hariri, but business leaders have announced plans for a strike to demand that pro-Syrian regime step down, raising the specter of turbulence in the future.

The strike on Monday would coincide with an expected vote of confidence in Parliament, two weeks after Hariri's assassination in a bomb blast for which the opposition has pinned blame on the government and its Syrian backers.

"The economic authorities call for the formation of a new and neutral government which has the people's support and the trust of the international community and Arab countries," said a statement from the private sector.

It called for a "total shutdown in memory of Rafik Hariri," father of Lebanon's post-war reconstruction and backed calls for an international investigation of his assassination.

It was signed by Lebanon's association of banks and industrialists as well as the chambers of commerce and industry.

"The economic authorities believe that restoration of the democratic regime is an essential condition to establish confidence in the Lebanese economy," the statement said.

Lebanon's Audi Bank, meanwhile, issued a study providing some reassurance.

It pointed out that, since Hariri's death, "concerted efforts have been made to contain the repercussions of this assassination.

"The Central Bank of Lebanon, in agreement with the banking sector, has worked to ensure the stability of the market," it said.

The study noted the "good financial health of the markets, with Central Bank reserves at their highest and banks liquidity at historical highs - both elements which helped resist pressures on the national currency."

The Central Bank is said to have reserves of $13.8 billion, which allow a certain flexibility to resist pressure on the pound, said international rating agency Standard & Poor's.

Bankers said the Central Bank has fulfilled its pledge to stabilize the national currency by intervening on the market with about one billion dollars.

The Lebanese pound traded Wednesday at between LL1,510 and LL1,515 to the dollar.

The pound has been stable for the past 12 years, with monetary stability having been one of the pillars of economic policy under Hariri.

Economist Michel Trad noted the significant role of the Central Bank in "containing the panic of small depositors." "It is especially needed, given that Hariri was a main economic weight in the country and the first employer in the banking and real-estate sectors."

"The Central Bank has asked banks to respect long- and medium-term deposits and not to free them ahead of schedule," he said.

In a sign of confidence, shares of market leader Solidere, the real estate giant controlled by the Hariri, regained value on Wednesday after having dropped 15 percent in the two previous sessions.

Solidere shares, which had been at $9.50 before Hariri's assassination and fell to a low of $6.86 afterwards, recovered on Wednesday to $7.86.

For its part Beirut's BSI bourse index surged 3.34 percent on Wednesday to closed at 630.94 points.

Until now, no major capital flights have been recorded, according to banking sources. Foreign capitals represent 11 percent of the country's GDP, according to Standard & Poor's.

"But if political uncertainty persists, it will be a problem. Tourism, which is an important source of foreign currencies for the country, risks being destroyed in the summer season," said Trad.

Damage to five of the most luxurious hotels of the Beirut sea front area has been estimated at more than $60 million, said Tourism Minister Wadih Khazen.

Beirut 27-02-2005
The Daily Star

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