French president vows support for Lebanon during visit

AP News
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Posted: Apr 16, 2016 12:38 PM
French president vows support for Lebanon during visit

BEIRUT (AP) — French President Francois Hollande said Saturday his country will stand by Lebanon to boost security in the tiny Arab country that is "surrounded by crisis and wars" and urged the parliament to elect a new president whose post has been vacant for nearly two years.

Hollande said Paris will give immediate assistance to boost Lebanon's capabilities in fighting terrorism, adding that the defense ministers from the two countries will discuss the details.

Holland's visit to Lebanon is the start of a regional tour that will take him to Egypt and Jordan. During his two-day visit to Lebanon, the French president is scheduled to meet senior officials and visit a group of Syrian refugees in the country's eastern Bekaa Valley.

Lebanon is home to more than a million registered Syrian refugees, the equivalent of a quarter the country's population of 4.5 million. Another half a million Syrians live in the country as well.

An official ceremony was held outside the parliament building in downtown Beirut where Hollande received a red carpet welcome. Usually heads of state are welcomed by the president but the post in Lebanon has been empty since May 2014 when the term of President Michel Suleiman ended.

"Lebanon is hosting more than 1.5 million refugees and therefore we have to give Lebanon solidarity and assistance," Hollande said after meeting Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, adding that Paris will give assistance worth 50 million euros ($56.4 million) in 2016 and 100 million euros ($112.8 million) in the coming years.

He later met Prime Minister Tammam Salam at the Grand Serail in Beirut.

"France stands by you and France is concerned that security is boosted in Lebanon through military cooperation," Hollande said.

"We are with you because Lebanon is surrounded by crisis and wars ... Lebanon that knows the war on its border also knows the threat of terrorism," Hollande said referring to Syria's civil war that has spilled over into Lebanon on several occasions.

Lebanon and France have also been struck by attacks from the extremist Islamic State group. A day before the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris that that killed 130 people, two suicide attackers struck in Beirut killing nearly 50 people and wounding many others.

"The security of Lebanon is the security of France," Hollande said adding that the attacks on the two countries' shows solidarity between them.

Hollande urged Lebanese politicians to elect a new president saying "I want to come back to Lebanon to meet the president. I don't have a solution for that but the answer is with you, the Lebanese legislators."

More than 30 parliament sessions have failed to elect a new president amid divisions between the country's political groups.

The militant Hezbollah group issued a statement saying they will not meet with Hollande during his visit. Hezbollah, which is Lebanon's most powerful group, has sent thousands of fighters to Syria to back President Bashar Assad.

France, the onetime colonial ruler of both Syria and Lebanon, has been one of the most outspoken Western critics of Assad. In 2013, the European Union named the military wing of Hezbollah a terrorist organization.