Donors pledge billions in aid to war-scarred Lebanon

25th January 2007, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Jan 25, 2007 (AFP) - Saudi Arabia, the United States, France and other donors pledged more than six billion dollars in aid to Lebanon on Thursday to bolster the Western-backed government in Beirut and help the country recover from war.

PARIS, Jan 25, 2007 (AFP) - Saudi Arabia, the United States, France and other donors pledged more than six billion dollars in aid to Lebanon on Thursday to bolster the Western-backed government in Beirut and help the country recover from war.

The pledges poured in during a one-day international donors' conference to raise funds for Lebanon following the devastation of the July-August war between Hezbollah and Israel.

"We are on the verge of a deep recession as a result of the Israeli aggression," Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora told the gathering at a Paris convention center.

"We can't overcome all our problems alone.  We need the support of the international community," said Siniora, who has been facing calls from the Syrian-backed opposition to step down.

French President Jacques Chirac opened the meeting with an appeal to help Lebanon where "terrible confrontations have brought death and destruction."

"A very substantial and immediate financial support from the international community is absolutely indispensable," Chirac said.

Saudi Arabia pledged 1.1 billion dollars (846 million euros) in aid to Lebanon, reaching out to its fellow Sunnis in power in Beirut, and the United States put 770 million dollars to the massive aid effort.

France announced a 500-million-euro (650-million-dollar) loan and the European Commission pledged 400 million euros (519 million dollars) in aid.

Multilateral donors weighed in with large pledges, the World Bank giving one billion dollars in aid, the European Investment Bank 960 million euros (1.2 billion dollars), the Islamic Development Fund offering 250 million dollars and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development 700 million dollars.

Britain offered 48 million dollars (37 million euros) to a UN agency to assist Palestinian refugees, many of whom are in Lebanon.

The meeting is being held two days after protests led by the Syrian-backed Hezbollah opposition erupted into violence, leaving three people dead and fueling fears Lebanon could slide back into the civil strife that wracked the country in decades past.

Lebanese officials have said they need several billion dollars to rebuild villages and infrastructure devastated in the month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Lebanon's public debt has reached 41 billion dollars (32 billion euros), more than 180 percent of gross domestic product.

To pull the country back from the brink, Siniora's goverment has proposed a five-year reform plan that would see a hike in value-added tax from 2008 and more privatisation.

The reform program "won't be sufficient by itself to steer the economy on a viable financial path," said John Lipskey, a senior official with the International Monetary Fund.

"The program will need to be supported by very substantial and sustained donor assistance if Lebanon is to return to a path of financial stability," he said.

While the conference focused on the plight of the Lebanese, it also provided a chance for Siniora's Western backers to send a message to Iran and Syria against interfering in Lebanese affairs.

"The people of Lebanon deserve to live in peace, they deserve to make decisions about their political future, free from the threat of violence and free from political intimidation," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the conference.

"The United States is dedicated to this task."

Chirac asserted that all UN resolutions must be implemented to restore Lebanon's full sovereighty while UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called on "Lebanon's neighbors to fully respect its unity, independence and sovereignty."

Lebanon has been in a state of political deadlock since six pro-Syrian ministers, including two from Hezbollah, walked out of Siniora's government last November.

Hezbollah has denounced Siniora as a puppet of the West and is seeking to topple his government or force a power-sharing deal that would leave the Iranian- and Syrian-backed movement and its allies with veto power in cabinet.

Tuesday's protests were the most serious challenge yet to Siniora's government from the Iran- and Syrian-backed opposition.

Syria occupied Lebanon for 30 years until being forced to withdraw its troops amid huge demonstrations sparked by the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri -- an outspoken opponent of Damascus.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French News, Lebanon

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