UNITED NATIONS (AP) — In an emotional appeal to world leaders, Lebanon's prime minister on Friday said his country is facing a "fierce terrorist onslaught" and a national disaster created by more than a million Syrian refugees flooding the tiny nation.
Speaking before the U.N. General Assembly, Tammam Salam said Lebanon is determined not to give in to "pressure and blackmail" by Islamic extremists who overran a town bordering Syria in August and are holding about 20 Lebanese soldiers and policemen hostage.
The Islamic State group, an al-Qaida breakaway group, has already beheaded two of them and the Nusra Front, the main al-Qaida branch in Syria, has shot a third, sparking days of violence against Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
Since then, Lebanese troops have clashed with jihadist fighters in the border area near the Lebanese town of Arsal.
The extremists have made various demands in exchange for the soldiers' release, including the release of Islamist prisoners in Lebanese jails.
"We will never give in to such pressure, and will remain focused on the release of our soldiers, while preserving our country," Salam said.
Lebanon has long been split over the war in neighboring Syria, with Sunnis supporting the Sunni-led rebellion against President Bashar Assad and Shiites supporting his government, fearing the rise of extremists among the rebels' ranks. The Shiite Hezbollah movement has infuriated many Sunnis by sending fighters to battle alongside Assad's troops.
Salam also said the number of Syrian refugees flooding Lebanon — a number equivalent to one-third of the Lebanese population — is now a national disaster.
"To be fully aware of the implications of this situation, one should imagine a hundred million people — yes, one hundred million people — flocking massively into the United States and spreading randomly in cities, towns, schools and parks," he said.
Salam met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry early Friday.
A senior State Department official said Kerry underscored the United States' firm commitment to Lebanon's security and stability at a time when Lebanon is facing many challenges. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about the session.
Kerry also commended Salam for Lebanon's efforts to combat the Islamic State group and other extremists within its borders and its support for regional efforts to counter extremism.
At a ministerial meeting of the International Support Group for Lebanon held on the sidelines of the General Assembly, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Lebanon hosts the highest ratio of refugees per capita in the world and has received far less assistance than needed.
"As long as the region is aflame and the war in Syria continues ... the strains on Lebanon will remain immense, and the burden it is bearing must be shared," he said.
The United Kingdom announced an additional $8 million for the Lebanese army to assist the military's work in securing border regions.
AP Diplomatic Writer Mathew Lee contributed to this report in New York.