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Italy to support Lebanese Army, increase refugee aid
Prime Minister Enrico Letta, left, speaks during a joint news conference with caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati at the Grand Serail on Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)
Prime Minister Enrico Letta, left, speaks during a joint news conference with caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati at the Grand Serail on Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)
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BEIRUT: Italy will host an international conference to support the Lebanese Army next year, Prime Minister Enrico Letta said Saturday in Beirut, adding that his country will increase funds to help Syrian refugees in host countries especially in Lebanon.

During a joint news conference with caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Letta also said Italy will increase its assistance to the Lebanese Army in terms of training and military expertise as well as increase its cooperation on the bilateral level.

“Italy will organize a meeting in Rome [for] the international community’s joint support in [helping] the Lebanese armed forces,” Letta told reporters at the Grand Serail following talks with Mikati.

Mikati said the conference, which is expected to convene early next year, is aimed at strengthening the Lebanese Army to better carry out its security duties.

He added that Italy had promised to take such an initiative during the first meeting of the International Support Group for Lebanon, which was convened in September in New York on the sidelines of the General Assembly meeting.

The conference to be held in Rome and in close coordination with the U.N. would be a follow-up on the recommendations made by the International Support Group for Lebanon which aimed at supporting Lebanon’s state institutions and its Army as well as help the country better manage the presence of thousands of Syrian refugees.

Letta also announced an additional $50 million in aid for host countries especially Lebanon which he said was under tremendous pressure as a result of the overwhelming number of refugees.

He also said that the international community should be more engaged in helping host countries address the rising refugee crisis.

Aside from financial support, Letta said Italy organized a rescue mission with five to seven ships to rescue thousands of migrants, mostly Syrians, in the Mediterranean Sea.

Letta and Mikati also discussed issues related to Lebanon’s economy and the need to vitalize trade relations.

Prior to the news conference, Letta visited the Beirut suburb of Burj al-Barajneh and met with a number of Syrian refugee families.

President Michel Sleiman expressed his appreciation Saturday for Italy over its decision to hold the international conference to support the Army, during talks with the Italian PM.

According to Sleiman's office, the president also welcomed Italy's readiness to increase its support for the Lebanese Army.

"Sleiman also expressed appreciation over Italy's decision to organize an international conference in Rome to support the Lebanese armed forces in coordination with the United Nations and Lebanon," his office said.

The statement said Letta and Sleiman stressed on the importance of supporting Lebanon’s security agencies given that the agencies "represent the country's unity par excellence and is tasked with preserving security."

The two also affirmed the need for the international community to share such a burden with Lebanon.

They also affirmed the need for a continued international support for Lebanon to strengthen stability, support the economy and the armed forces and help the country address the refugee crisis.

Letta also met Speaker Nabih Berri later in the day at the latter's residence in Ain el-Tineh where they discussed Italy's contribution to the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon.

Berri expressed gratitude to Letta over his country's participation in UNIFIL and Italy's decision to hold a conference for the Army.

"Berri stressed on the importance of strengthening cooperation and investment opportunities in various fields between the countries especially that Italy is one of the top European countries having trade relations with Lebanon," the National News Agency said.

The speaker also thanked Italy for the refugee aid, saying that the most important help that could be offered is the Geneva 2 peace talks in order to reach a political solution for the ongoing crisis in Syria.

Letta will also visit his country's 1,466-strong contingent in the UNIFIL based on the southern village of Naqoura and meet with the peacekeeping force cheif Gen. Paolo Serra, also an Italian.

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