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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Beirut lifts security cordon in boost for battered business quarter

Crowds thronged the Place d'Etoile square for the first time in a decade on Sunday night to usher in the new year with fireworks, music and dancing

Lebanon lifted a years-old security cordon near its parliament on Wednesday in a move it hopes will revive central Beirut's business district.

Security forces removed metal barriers and heavy concrete slabs which had blocked all entrances to Beirut's showpiece Place d'Etoile quarter and forced most shops and restaurants there to close.

The security measures had been in place around the square for a number of years, but were tightened in 2015 following large-scale protests over a rubbish collection crisis.

Crowds thronged the Place d'Etoile square for the first time in a decade on Sunday night to usher in the new year with fireworks, music and dancing.

People watch fireworks in the rain on New Year's Day in downtown Beirut, Lebanon on January 1, 2018. Jamal Saidi / Reuters
People watch fireworks in the rain on New Year's Day in downtown Beirut, Lebanon on January 1, 2018. Jamal Saidi / Reuters

The speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, who issued Wednesday's order, said he hoped businesses, restaurants, hotels and offices in the area would now be able to resume work.

"There were many times we thought about closing, but we said 'no, maybe things will pick up'," said Zeina Hasbini, who runs a chocolate boutique off the square.

She and her son, who runs a small grocery store next door, said they were sure lifting the barriers would boost business as footfall and investment increased.

Although Lebanon faces challenges, there has been progress over the past year despite conflict in neighbouring Syria and rising tensions around the Middle East.

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Its squabbling politicians clinched a deal that ended a two-and-a-half-year period without a state president and installed a government under prime minister Saad Hariri. The government approved a first budget in 12 years and awarded its first offshore oil land gas exploration licences.

In August, ISIL and other militants were cleared from the Lebanon-Syria border area after separate offensives by the Lebanese army and Lebanon's Hizbollah militia.

The Petit Cafe overlooking Place d'Etoile reopened in mid-2017 after shutting its doors as the Syrian civil war broke out.

"The country ground to a halt. You no longer saw tourists, or people from the Gulf countries, so we closed for about six or seven years," said Muhammad Faris, a restaurant manager.

He said the new year's celebrations and the lifting of the barriers were signs that the area "can flourish again".

Despite such signs of hope, Lebanon remains a politically fraught country.

Tensions flared in November when Mr Hariri resigned as prime minister in a broadcast from Saudi Arabia. He subsequently withdrew the resignation and the government resumed business.