October 29, 2019 / 12:26 PM / 14 days ago

Lebanese PM Hariri likely to resign amid protests -sources

* Hariri to deliver speech at 4 p.m. (1400 GMT)

* Hezbollah, Amal backers break up protester roadblock

* Wave of unrest deepens Lebanon’s deep economic plight (New throughout)

BEIRUT, Oct 29 (Reuters) - Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri is likely to resign, two official sources said on Tuesday, amid unprecedented protests against a ruling elite many accuse of corruption and leading Lebanon towards economic collapse unseen since the 1975-90 civil war.

There was no immediate comment from Hariri’s office. He will deliver an address at 4 p.m. (1400 GMT), an official Twitter account said.

His resignation would defy the powerful Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah, whose leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has twice said he was against such a step, citing the risk of a dangerous void.

In the street, supporters of Hezbollah and its Shi’ite ally Amal forced protesters from a roadblock they had set up in Beirut, tearing down their tents and fighting with them, forcing the police to intervene, the first such incident in the capital.

The Hezbollah and Amal supporters fanned out in the downtown area shouting “Shia, Shia” in reference to themselves and cursing protesters who have been calling for revolution.

Hariri last week sought to defuse popular anger through a set of reform measures agreed with other groups in his coalition government, including Hezbollah to, among other things, tackle corruption and long-delayed economic reforms.

But with no immediate steps towards enacting these steps, they did not satisfy demonstrators whose demands include the resignation of his coalition government.

One of the sources, a senior official from outside Hariri’s Future Party, told Reuters the premier would “most probably” announce the government resignation on Tuesday. The report weighed on Lebanese dollar bonds.

The nationwide protests have paralysed Lebanon at a time of deep economic crisis - banks were closed for a 10th day on Tuesday along with schools and businesses, with the pegged Lebanese pound weakening on a black market.

FEARS OF ECONOMIC MELTDOWN

A report from credit rating agency S&P last week sounded the alarm over the financial situation. Central bank governor Riad Salameh called on Monday for a solution to the crisis in days to restore confidence and avoid a future economic meltdown.

Hariri has not spoken in public since Oct. 21 when he announced reforms including steps to fix gaping holes in the finances of one of the world’s most heavily indebted states.

He has been pressing his feuding governing partners, including Hezbollah and President Michel Aoun, to carry out a major cabinet reshuffle to appease the protesters, but has run into strong opposition, political sources said.

A major dispute has flared between Hariri and other groups in his cabinet over the past 48 hours with his opponents accusing him of siding with protesters and not allowing security forces to remove them from the streets, the sources said.

Anti-government protesters had shut the Ring Bridge in central Beirut to traffic for several days, part of an extraordinary wave of unrest against Lebanese politicians over rampant corruption and dire economic conditions.

Pro-Hezbollah and Amal crowds chanted in support of Hezbollah leader Nasrallah and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, the head of Amal, as they scuffled with protesters.

It was the first such attempt to unblock roads in the capital by force. Lebanese police deployed between the groups.

Security forces have been trying to persuade protesters to vacate roads across Lebanon but have orders not to use force.

Nasrallah called last week called for the roads to be cleared and told his supporters not to go into the protests which have paralysed the country since Oct. 17.

Hezbollah’s al-Manar television, broadcasting Tuesday’s clashes live, described them as “big fight” after an “attempt by citizens to open the road”. (Reporting by Eric Knect and Laila Bassam; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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