Lebanon army appeals for aid as economic crisis leaves soldiers hungry

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image captionA soldier's monthly salary is only worth about $80 (£57) at the black market exchange rate

Lebanon's army is appealing to world powers for aid to help it survive the country's economic collapse, which has left soldiers "suffering and hungry".

The Lebanese pound has lost 90% of its value since 2019, wiping out soldiers' salaries and the army's budget.

A donor conference hosted by France is not being asked for funds but rather food, fuel, medicine and spare parts.

The army is one of the few institutions seen as a unifying and stabilising force in the deeply divided country.

It has a reputation for neutrality and enjoys broad support among all of the 18 recognised religious groups, as well as the many political factions.

Western powers also view the army as a counterweight to the powerful, Iran-backed militant Shia Islamist movement, Hezbollah, which refuses to disarm.

"The Lebanese army is the pillar in Lebanon and ensures that the security situation in the country doesn't degenerate so it's an immediate interest to help them carry out their mission," an official at the French armed forces ministry told reporters.

France organised Thursday's donor conference after Lebanese army chief General Joseph Aoun made headlines in March by warning his soldiers were "suffering and hungry like the rest of the people".

He also openly criticised Lebanon's political leaders, who have been unable to agree on the make-up of a new cabinet since caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab's resigned after the devastating explosion at Beirut's port last August. "Where are we going? What do you intend to do?" he asked them.

In a speech on Tuesday, General Aoun said: "We are forced to turn to allied states to secure aid, and I am ready to go to the end of the world to procure assistance so that the army can stay on its feet."

AFP news agency cited a source close to the French defence minister as saying the Lebanese army had "very specific needs" for milk, flour, medical supplies, fuel and spare parts for military equipment.

The US said last month that it would increase its funding for the army for this year by $15m to $120m.

media captionA country in free-fall: "For me, Lebanon now is a large jail"

The World Bank recently warned that Lebanon was enduring a severe and prolonged economic depression that was possibly one of the three worst seen by the world since the mid-19th Century.

It estimated that Lebanon's real gross domestic product (GDP) had shrunk by 20.3% in 2020, on the back of a 6.7% contraction in 2019, and was projected to shrink another 9.5% this year. The depreciation of the Lebanese pound had resulted in surging inflation, which averaged 84% last year, it said.

More than half of the population is believed to be living below the national poverty line, with the bulk of the labour force suffering from plummeting purchasing power. And an increasing share of households is facing difficulty in accessing basic services, including healthcare.

A regular soldier in the Lebanese army earns about 1.25m Lebanese pounds a month. That is worth $800 (£574) at the official exchange rate, but only about $80 at the black market exchange rate.

That has caused low morale in the army, which saw its overall number of personnel fall by more than 3,000 to 80,874 at the start of the year, according to Aram Nerguizian of the Carnegie Middle East Center.

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