Saudi gives $1 billion as Lebanon seeks arms to battle jihadists
BEIRUT - Agence France-Presse
Lebanese army soldiers on armoured carriers and military vehilces advance towards the Sunni Muslim border town of Arsal, in eastern Bekaa Valley as part of reinforcements August 5, 2014. REUTERS PhotoSaudi Arabia has given Lebanon's military $1 billion to help its fight against jihadists on the Syrian border, as the army's chief urged France to speed up promised weapons supplies.
After fighting in the eastern area Tuesday, where troops have been clashing with militants since Saturday, ambulances entered the town of Arsal amid reports of a truce.
Earlier, three policemen being held by jihadists were released, and there was a brief lull in the fighting, but shelling and artillery fire resumed on Tuesday evening, an AFP correspondent said.
Tensions also rose in northern Lebanon, where clashes killed a child and wounded 11 other people, including seven soldiers.
France said it would respond "quickly" to Lebanon's request to expedite weaponry.
Saudi Arabia has gone further and handed Lebanon's army $1 billion to strengthen security, former Lebanese premier Saad Hariri told reporters in Jeddah on Wednesday.
King Abdullah "has informed me of his generous decision to provide the Lebanese army... with $1 billion to strengthen its capabilities to preserve Lebanon's security," Hariri told reporters in Jeddah.
Speaking from King Abdullah's palace in the Saudi Red Sea city, Harriri -- the Lebanese Sunni community's most prominent political representative -- added that "we have received this aid".
"This aid is very important especially at this time when Lebanon is fighting terrorism," said Hariri at the overnight conference.
Sunni-dominated regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia is already financing a $3 billion package of French military equipment and arms for Lebanon's army.
The fighting in Arsal is the worst violence to hit the volatile border region since the 2011 outbreak of the armed uprising in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad.
Speaking to AFP, Lebanon's army chief General Jean Kahwaji said the military was hamstrung in its fight against the jihadists.
"This battle requires equipment, materiel and technology that the army doesn't have," Kahwaji said.
"That's why we need to speed up the delivery of the necessary military aid by finalising the list of weapons requested from France under a Saudi-financed deal."
In December, Riyadh agreed to finance the $3 billion package of French military equipment and arms for Lebanon's army.
And in mid-June, at a conference in Rome, the international community pledged its backing for the Lebanese military.
Details of what arms will be furnished have yet to be finalised.
France insisted on Tuesday that it stood behind the Lebanese army.
"France is fully committed to supporting the Lebanese army, a pillar of stability and unity in Lebanon," said Vincent Floreani, a foreign ministry spokesman.
"We are in close contact with our partners to quickly meet Lebanon's needs." Lebanon is hosting one million Syrian refugees, and despite an official policy of neutrality towards the conflict in its larger neighbour, it has regularly seen the fighting spill over.
Kahwaji warned "the situation in Arsal is dangerous".
In a sign of those dangers, clashes erupted in parts of the northern port city of Tripoli overnight and into Tuesday.
Gunmen clashed with soldiers in the Bab el-Tebbaneh district, where Sunni militants regularly fire on the army and their pro-Syrian regime neighbours in the Jabal Mohsen area.
The fighting killed a 12-year-old girl and injured 11 other people, seven of them soldiers hurt when gunmen attacked their bus.
The Arsal violence has left 16 soldiers dead and 85 wounded, while dozens of jihadists are said to have been killed, along with three civilians.
Another 22 soldiers are missing, possibly having been taken hostage.
The militants have also detained 20 policemen, three of whom were freed on Tuesday afternoon, police sources said.
The releases were reportedly part of negotiations for a ceasefire, but shelling resumed after they were freed.
The fighting started Saturday after the arrest of a Syrian man who the army said had confessed to being a member of Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate battling Assad's forces.