Lebanon's Sunni leader Hariri says he fears civil strife as financial crisis hardens

FILE PHOTO: Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri speaks to the media after a session of the United Nations-backed Lebanon Tribunal handing down a judgement in the case of four men being tried in absentia for the 2005 bombing that killed former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri and 21 other people, in Leidschendam, Netherlands August 18, 2020. REUTERS/Piroschka Van De Wouw

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon's leading Sunni Muslim politician, former premier Saad al-Hariri, said on Thursday he feared civil strife as the country sinks into its worst financial crisis since a 1975-1990 civil war.

"I fear a civil war and what is happening in terms of carrying arms and what we are seeing in terms of military displays in the street ... means the collapse of the state," Hariri said in a TV interview.

Lebanon's financial meltdown since last year has wiped out the value of the currency and sent inflation soaring. It has fuelled unrest in a country where divisions run deep since a war fought along sectarian lines.

Hariri, a Western ally traditionally aligned with Gulf states, also said Lebanon had no way out of the crisis other than a programme with the International Monetary Fund.

IMF talks stalled earlier this year over disputes among Lebanese government officials, bankers and political parties about the scale of the country's vast financial losses.

Hariri added he would only return as prime minister if there was agreement by Lebanon's many fractious politicians on securing an IMF deal.

Huge protests - by people furious at the ruling elite they accused of corruption - toppled his government around a year ago.

Wrangling among Lebanese parties blocked talks on a new cabinet last month, in a blow to a French effort to pull the nation out of crisis. The outgoing government quit over the explosion at Beirut port which killed nearly 200 people and wrecked the capital in August.

Foreign donors have made clear there will be no fresh aid unless the heavily indebted state begins reforms it has long ignored to tackle waste and corruption.

(Reporting by Laila Bassam and Samia Nakhoul; additional reporting by Hesham Abdul Khalek in Cairo; editing by Grant McCool)

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