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Swiss attorney general investigates Lebanon’s central bank

January 19, 2021 GMT

BEIRUT (AP) — The office of Switzerland’s attorney general said Tuesday it requested legal assistance from Lebanese authorities for an investigation into possible money laundering and embezzlement tied to Lebanon’s central bank.

The Swiss attorney general confirmed in a statement it had opened an investigation following media reports in Lebanon about it but no additional details were released. The office declined to provide further information on its inquiry.

The investigation was apparently launched at the request of the Lebanese government, which is looking into reports of what it said were billions of dollars that left Lebanon after banks blocked transfers abroad.

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Lebanon’s central bank governor, Riad Salameh, issued a statement saying that Lebanon abides by international and local laws and is cooperating with all those concerned.

Lebanon is facing a crippling financial crisis that was in full throttle last year, when private banks enforced informal capital controls, limiting withdrawals and blocking transfers abroad. The value of Lebanon’s currency tumbled against the dollar amid an unprecedented shortage of foreign currencies. The government defaulted on its foreign debts and began talks with the International Monetary Fund for a rescue package.

Amid the chaos, reports surfaced of capital transfers, including by government officials.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab has held Salameh responsible for the currency crash, accusing him of pursuing “opaque” policies that sent the Lebanese pound on its downward spiral against the dollar. The government also hired a New York-based company to conduct a forensic audit of the central bank, which later pulled out, saying it was unable to acquire needed information and documents. Diab said Salameh was inaccessible.

Disagreements between the head of the government and the central bank governor were widely publicized. Salameh, who has held the central bank post since 1993, has defended his role, alleging a systematic campaign meant to hold him responsible for the country’s financial crisis.

Meanwhile, talks with the IMF faltered amid disagreements between government officials on how to estimate the banking sector losses.