Lebanese Protesters Back in Streets

BEIRUT (AP) -- Lebanese protesters blocked major highways with burning tires and roadblocks on Wednesday, saying they will remain in the streets despite the president's appeal for them to go home.

Schools and universities were closed and banks remained shuttered --- a reflection of the deepening political and financial crisis the tiny country faces. A 38-year old local official with a political party was killed by a Lebanese soldier during Tuesday night protests, marking the first such fatality since nationwide demonstrations engulfed the country on Oct. 17.

The protesters took to the streets after President Michel Aoun said in a televised interview that there could be further delays before a new government is formed, and said the best option was a Cabinet made up of technocrats and politicians to deal with the country's economic and financial troubles.

He also urged those protesting to go home, warning of a "catastrophe" if the mass protests keep paralyzing the country.

Lebanon is passing through its worst economic and financial crisis in decades. It led to anti-government protests that culminated in mid-October as demonstrations spread across much of Lebanon. The protesters are also complaining of widespread corruption and calling an end for the rule of the political elite that has been running the country since the 1975-90 civil war ended.

Protesters, who have been calling for a Cabinet made up solely of experts, rejected Aoun's speech.

"Our demands are known, we need a technocrat government that is not related to any politician," said protester Melissa Barrak, a sales manager speaking at a major intersection in central Beirut that was closed by the demonstrators.

Highways linking Beirut with southern and northern Lebanon as well as other roads in major cities and towns were also closed. Policemen opened Wednesday morning the Fuad Chehab avenue in Beirut, hours it was closed by protesters.

In Nahr al-Kalb north of Beirut, protesters closed a tunnel by parking their cars inside it while a nearby highway was filled with debris. In Khaldeh, on Beirut's southern entrance, tires were set on fire and sand barriers closed a vital highway.

Black smoke billowed from several locations in and around the city Wednesday. Near the country's only international airport, travelers were seen dragging suitcases as they continued on foot to the airport, after protesters blocked the highway.

The place where the first fatality in the protests, Alaa Abou Fakher, was shot in the Khaldeh area was decorated with roses and a Lebanese flag was placed nearby. He was the first to be killed in direct shooting related to the protests, though there have been four other deaths since the demonstrations began.

A man was shot and killed in the early days of the protests by a man forcing people to pay bribes to pass through road barriers leading to the airport, while two Syrian workers choked to death when a fire was set inside a downtown Beirut building where they were sleeping.

Also, a young man fell inside a building as he was trying to climb to the roof to take photographs. He died days later in hospital.

Aoun on Wednesday met with French envoy Christophe Farnaud, who carried a message from France's President Emmanuel Macron expressing Paris' concerns about the situation in Lebanon and its readiness to help the Arab country.

France, Lebanon's former colonial ruler, remains a major player in Lebanese politics.