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Lebanon’s public sector falls further into chaos and corruption

After waiting in line for hours to register his car at a vehicle licensing agency in a suburb north of Beirut, Amine Gemayel’s patience is running thin.

He has already visited the branch in Dekwaneh several times for what should be a simple procedure, without success.

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The only way to get his paperwork done any faster would entail breaking the law by paying someone off – a dilemma facing all Lebanese trying to access basic services as their public institutions buckle under a catastrophic financial crisis and perennial political paralysis.

“It’s a great burden on citizens,” Gemayel said. “I know that to complete my procedure I need to use a middle-man.”

The country’s public sector has long been regarded as bloated, lethargic and rife with corruption. It’s now falling into further disarray due to an economic crisis that has left some eight in 10 people poor, according to UN agencies.

Such an environment breeds corruption, said George Attieh, who heads Lebanon’s public sector watchdog. He accuses many government employees of using the growing disarray of the state to ask for bribes in return for issuing citizens’ crucial paperwork.

“The situation is incomparable to before the crisis,” Attieh said. “If I look to how it was in 2018 and how it is now you can’t recognize the public sector. There are much more complaints, hundreds of complaints … mostly about bribery and intentional delays by employees in order to impose bribes.”

Before the crisis, most civil servants earned salaries worth around $1,000 and up; today, most are earning around a tenth of that after a currency crisis led the Lebanese pound to lose more than 90 percent of its value.

Some public sector workers have since the beginning of November been staging an open-ended strike over better pay and living conditions.

Others simply can’t make it into work: A full tank of gas can eat up more than half of their monthly wage and benefits.

Attieh said fuel shortages have also made the watchdog’s work more difficult as on-site visits needed to investigate alleged corruption have become impossible.

“Under the table”

Most Lebanese now struggle to put food on the table and are seeking to permanently leave the country, according to a recent poll by US-based polling company Gallup.

To help its employees cope, Lebanon’s government has promised to triple their daily transportation allowance and provide public employees with an extra half salary per month, but has not yet done so.

It has also been slow to provide other forms of badly needed social assistance despite funding being available. The cabinet has not met for nearly two months amid a row over the probe into the August 2020 Beirut port blast, leaving it unable to implement measures demanded by the international community to unlock aid.

Outside the vehicle registration office in Dekwaneh, Roy Mghames, 20, was also waiting in line.

“You either come and wait like other people and they tell you to come back next week, or you get your things done on the quick,” he said.

“You have to give it to them under the table.”

The director-general of the Traffic and Vehicles Management Authority, Hoda Salloum, was herself charged with corruption, including illicit enrichment and wasting public funds in February 2020, allegation she denies. She was released on bail and remains in her position.

Salloum told Reuters she had worked to increase transparency at the public institution by digitizing procedures, but hourslong state power cuts and a shortage of funds to buy fuel for backup generators meant these systems were often offline.

Hers is just one of Lebanon’s public institutions which do not know if they will still be operating in a month’s time.

“We can continue our work till the end of the year,” she said. “Then, it’s up to God.”

Read more: Lebanese protesters block roads over economic meltdown

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US: Bodies of two of three missing kids found in Minnesota lake

The bodies of two young children have been recovered from a Minnesota lake, and searchers are still looking for a third they fear may have been intentionally drowned.

Meanwhile, the father of the children died at a different location hours earlier, and their mother is missing. Names have not been released.

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The chain of events began Friday morning when the father was found dead at a mobile home park in the town of Maplewood, near Minneapolis. Police determined that the woman had left with the children, and a search began.

Maplewood Police Lt. Joe Steiner said the woman’s car was found near Vadnais Lake around 4 p.m. Friday. The shoes of the children were found on the shore.

A search of the lake found one child’s body Friday evening. A second body was found overnight. Searchers from several organizations were busy Saturday looking for the third, as well as the mother.

Authorities believe all three children were under the age of 5.

“There’s nothing more tragic than the loss of young children,” Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher said at a news conference on Friday. He called the deaths a “likely triple homicide.”

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Foreign firefighters arrive in Greece for summer wildfire season

Several dozen Romanian and Bulgarian firefighters took up their posts in Greece on Saturday, the first members of a European force being deployed to the country to provide backup in case of major wildfires during the summer.

More than 200 firefighters and equipment from Bulgaria, France, Germany, Romania, Norway and Finland will be on standby during the hottest months of July and August in Greece, where a spate of wildfires caused devastation last summer.

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A group of 28 Romanian firefighters with eight vehicles, and 16 firefighters from Bulgaria with four vehicles, were the first to arrive for the two-month mission, financed and coordinated under the European Union’s civil protection mechanism.

“We thank you very much for coming to help us during a difficult summer for our country, and for proving that European solidarity is not just theoretical, it’s real,” Greek Civil Protection Minister Christos Stylianides said on Saturday as he welcomed the members of the Romanian mission in Athens.

“When things get tough, you will be side by side with our Greek firefighters so we can save lives and property.”

The Bulgarian firefighters have been stationed in Larissa, in central Greece.

Last summer’s wildfires ravaged about 300,000 acres (121,000 hectares) of forest and bushland in different parts of Greece as the country experienced its worst heatwave in 30 years.

Following sharp criticism of its response to the fires, the Greek government set up a new civil protection ministry and promised to boost firefighting capacities.

In Greece’s worst wildfire disaster, 102 people were killed when a blaze tore through the seaside town of Mati and nearby areas close to Athens during the summer of 2018.

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One killed, six injured in shootout between migrant groups in Serbia

One migrant was killed and at least six others, including a teenage girl, were injured Saturday in a shootout between migrant groups in Serbia near the Hungarian border, the state-run RTS television reported.

The 16-year-old girl sustained life threatening injuries in the incident that occurred in a forest in the outskirts of Subotica, some 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Belgrade, where the injured were hospitalized, RTS reported.

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Police, who made no immediate comment, blocked access to the forest where the incident took place, only around a kilometer from the Hungarian border.

Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin rushed to the scene.

The injured, aged between 20 and 30, have no documents, Subotica mayor Stevan Bakic told local media.

It is not known what triggered the incident, he added.

Local media reported that the shootout occurred between Afghan and Pakistani migrants most likely over human trafficking from the area to European Union member Hungary.

Serbia lies on the so-called Balkans route used by migrants heading towards Western Europe as they flee war and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

Although the route is nowhere as busy as it was during Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015, tens of thousands of illegal migrants still cross the region annually.

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