Lebanese banks have adopted strict measures to ensure compliance with international sanctions against neighbouring Syria and are closely scrutinising transactions by Syrian clients, banking officials said Thursday.
"Banks are taking extremely strong precautions to avoid bad surprises regarding people or institutions under sanctions," said one official who works at one of Lebanon's top banks. "No one wants to expose himself to pressure or problems.
"Banks are running away from anything that has to do with Syria like it's a disease because the US is closely watching."
He requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue and banking secrecy laws.
He told AFP that the precautions taken apply to transactions by long-standing Syrian clients as well as new account applicants, many of whom are being turned down.
The measures are in light of US, European and Arab League sanctions slapped on the Syrian regime over its fierce crackdown against an eight-month revolt that has left at least 3,500 people dead.
"All accounts held by Syrians are under surveillance so that banks themselves don't end up facing punitive measures," said an official at another top bank who also requested anonymity.
"No transfers from accounts held by Syrian clients are being made in dollars and other transactions need special approval," she added.
The US sanctions adopted last summer have forced Syria to stop all transactions in US dollars, prompting the country to turn to the euro.
Lebanese banking officials said it was clear that many Syrians had taken their money out of the embattled country soon after the revolt broke out mid-March.
According to figures by the Association of Banks in Lebanon, in January the net outflow of deposits totalled 1.1 billion dollars, largely because of the collapse of the Lebanese government that month.
Comparatively, in March, when the revolt in Syria broke out, there was an inflow of 1.34 billion dollars and in April 1.8 billion dollars.
"There is a consensus in Lebanon that this was Syrian money," one of the officials said.
Economy Minister Nicolas Nahas told AFP this week that Lebanon was committed to implementing the Arab League sanctions and that Lebanese banks would have no dealings with the Syrian central bank or any individuals targeted by the sanctions.
"We are committed to implementing the Arab League sanctions," Nahas said, pointing out that the Syrian government in any case had no trade dealings with Lebanon.
Central Bank governor Riad Salameh for his part said Damascus has no funds deposited in the Lebanese central bank.
In an unprecedented move, the pan-Arab bloc on Sunday approved a raft of sanctions against Syria to pressure Damascus to end its deadly crackdown.
The sanctions include freezing government assets, suspending cooperation with Syria's central bank and halting funding for projects in the country.
Lebanon, whose government is dominated by the pro-Syrian Hezbollah movement, disassociated itself from the vote at the Arab League.