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President Higgins and Minister Paul Kehoe evacuated from Beirut hotel due to 'security concerns'

Their itinerary for today was cancelled due the ongoing protests in the city.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun shakes hands with President Michael D Higgins during their meeting on Thursday
Lebanese President Michel Aoun shakes hands with President Michael D Higgins during their meeting on Thursday
Image: DPA/PA Images

PRESIDENT MICHAEL D Higgins and Minister for Defence Paul Kehoe have been evacuated from their hotel in Beirut due to “security concerns” associated with ongoing protests in the city. 

Hundreds gathered in the Lebanese capital around the country for the third day of protests against tax increases and alleged official corruption.

A spokesperson for Minister Kehoe said the Irish delegation was brought by helicopter to Beirut airport due to “security concerns” associated with demonstrations close to their hotel.

“They are currently en route back to Ireland,” the spokesperson added. 

It is understood that their hotel had been on lockdown for the last 24 hours. 

Higgins and Kehoe were scheduled to attend a reception with the Irish community today, hosted by Ireland’s Ambassador to Lebanon, however, it was cancelled along with a meeting NGOs supporting refugees.

While in Lebanon a three-day official visit, they also met with Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Hariri.

Yesterday, they to Southern Lebanon, to meet the Irish troops serving in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.

Irish troops have served with the United Nations mission in southern Lebanon since it was established 40 years ago following the Israeli invasion of the country. Nearly 50 Irish troops have lost their lives on the mission.

Tweet by @Paul Kehoe T.D Source: Paul Kehoe T.D/Twitter

Lebanese troops reopened blocked highways after security forces used tear gas and water cannons to disperse a huge crowd of protesters who had gathered in the heart of Beirut on Friday evening.

The Internal Security Forces said 70 arrests were made on accusations of theft and arson

Protestors were demanding a sweeping overhaul of the country’s political system, citing grievances ranging from austerity measures to poor infrastructure. 

Prime Minister Saad Hariri has given his deeply divided coalition until Monday evening to give their backing to a reform package aimed at shoring up the government’s finances and securing the disbursement of desperately needed economic assistance from donors.

lebanon-protests Anti-government protesters try to remove a barbed-wire barrier to advance towards the government buildings during today's protest. Source: Hassan Ammar/AP/Press Association Images

‘Used to repression’

Groups of young people gathered on the streets of the capital during the morning collecting tyres and other material to make improvised roadblocks, AFP correspondents reported.

Parts of central Beirut looked like a war zone, littered with broken glass, overturned litter bins and the remains of burning tyres. Banks and many restaurants and shops remained closed. 

The demonstrations first erupted on Thursday, sparked by a proposed 20 cent tax on calls via messaging apps such as WhatsApp.

Such calls are the main method of communication for many Lebanese and, despite the government’s swift abandonment of the tax, the demonstrations quickly swelled into the largest in years.

Thousands of people of all ages, sects and political affiliations brought the capital to a standstill on Friday, before security forces dispersed them.

Minor clashes continued after dark, pitting groups of young men against security forces, an AFP reporter said.

Lebanon has one of the highest public debt burdens in the world and the government is trying to reach agreement on a package of belt-tightening measures to cap the deficit in next year’s budget. 

The promised austerity moves are essential if Lebanon is to unlock $11 billion in economic assistance pledged by international donors last year.

Growth has plummeted in recent years, with political deadlock compounded by the impact of eight years of war in neighbouring Syria.

- Additional reporting from AFP 

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Adam Daly

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