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South Korean companies shelve Libya projects as workers flee riots

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“Events in the Middle East have come out of the blue,” says Lee Jong-hwa, senior economic adviser to South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak. “The situation is a lot worse than expected.”

On top of the rioting and looting of foreign companies in Libya, Dr. Lee cites oil prices rising above $100 dollars a barrel as reason for concern. The rising price of oil, he says, was the main topic at an emergency meeting Thursday at the Blue House, the center of presidential power.

“There is risk,” says Lee when asked about the possibility of violence against foreign interests erupting in other Arab countries caught up in a democracy movement that also bears parallels to mass protests here that ended military rule and led to elections in South Korea in 1987. “The fear is very high.”

Korean officials believe rioters from poverty-stricken regions of tend to see foreign companies as oppressors ripe for looting. The level of poverty, they say, is particularly low among tribal groupings in the Libya's east, where looters stole or wrecked vehicles and set fire to buildings.

The evacuation forced a halt to construction of major power plants by South Korea’s two biggest builders, Hyundai Engineering and Construction and Daewoo Engineering and Construction.

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