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U.S. pledges support for Lebanese Army after Sidon clashes

  • Lebanese army soldiers stand guard near the Bilal bin Rabbah mosque where Sunni cleric Sheik Ahmad al-Assir once preached, in the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon, Wednesday, June 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari)

BEIRUT: U.S. officials have pledged renewed support for Lebanon’s Army, saying it was the “sole guarantor” of stability days after a battle with supporters of a radical preacher in Sidon. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry Thursday stressed his country’s “continued support for the Lebanese Army which proved to be the sole guarantor of stability and civil peace as well as for combating terrorism.”

One day earlier, the top U.S. military officer said he recommended bolstering Lebanese forces grappling with the fallout from Syria’s civil war by sending in military trainers and accelerating arms sales.

“We’ve made a recommendation that as we look at the challenges faced by the Lebanese Armed Forces ... that we would work with them to help them build additional capability,” Gen. Martin Dempsey said at the Pentagon.

The statements came days after supporters of Sheikh Ahmad Assir clashes with the Lebanese Army for control of Sidon in a 25-hour battle that claimed the lives of 18 soldiers and an unknown number of militants.

In a telephone conversation with President Michel Sleiman, Kerry hailed efforts to maintain stability in Lebanon and said Washington continued to support the Lebanese Army, according to a statement from Baabda Palace.

Kerry offered condolences to Sleiman over the deaths of soldiers in the fighting in Sidon, and affirmed Washington’s support for Lebanon in various fields.

He stressed the importance of providing aid to Syrians fleeing the 27-month-long conflict between rebels and President Bashar Assad’s regime, “in the light of the huge numbers of Syrians fleeing home, as well as the security, social and demographic impact of the refugee burden,” the statement added.

Kerry and Sleiman also discussed efforts to hold a new conference to discuss solutions to the Syria crisis.

Lebanon is grappling with an influx of over a million Syrian refugees and displaced, which prompted caretaker Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour to warn that the refugee crisis was critical and said global aid was not enough to meet their needs.

“Lebanon has entered a critical stage regarding the issue of Syrian refugees and as a result, [Lebanon] is facing huge burdens [financially],” Mansour told the Voice of Lebanon radio station.

“Aid to Lebanon from donor countries and international organizations is insufficient and doesn’t meet even 20 percent of their [Syrian refugees’] needs,” he complained.

Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati discussed the refugee crisis with Derek Plumbly, the U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon.

The EU’s envoy to Lebanon also stressed that a swift Cabinet formation was needed in order to deal effectively with the refugee crisis.

“Lebanon faces big challenges in the economy and in dealing with the refugees issue, which requires the creation of a Cabinet as soon as possible to speed up the work of institutions,” said Angelina Eichhorst in a meeting with premier-designate Tammam Salam, the National News Agency reported.

At a news conference in Washington, Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was responding to a question about whether Lebanon had asked for military help and whether the U.S. military might go into that country.

“When you say would we send the United States Army or the United States military into Lebanon, I’m talking about teams of trainers, and I’m talking about accelerating foreign military sales for equipment for them,” Dempsey said in response.

A spokesman said Dempsey’s recommendations were made “in recent weeks” during internal discussions with the U.S. military’s Central Command, as it deliberates how to respond to the growing, regional unrest.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 28, 2013, on page 3.
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