01/25/2007, 00.00
LEBANON
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Lebanese government gets more than seven billion dollars from the West and moderate Arab nations

Saudi Arabia, the US and France top the list at donor’s conference. Tehran ad Riyadh announce meeting to discuss the Lebanese crisis.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – Foreign donors have pledged US$ 7.6 billion (€ 5.8 billion) in aid and loans for Lebanon and its government at a conference in Paris, French President Jacques Chirac has said.

Representatives from some 40 countries and 14 international organisations, including UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon, the EU High Representative Javier Solana, World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were present at the meeting chaired by French President Jacques Chirac.

Saudi Arabia, which pledged US$ 1.1 billion in aid, topped the donors’ list. The US said it would provide US$ 770 million. France is giving US$ 650 million, and the European Union is offering US$ 520 million. Some US$ 1.25 billion will come from the European Investment Bank.

Lebanese sources aid that the country needed some US$ 5 billion to repair damages caused by the war with Israel and jumpstart its economy.

Sources in the International Monetary Fund have estimated it would take US$ 9 billion in aid, including outright grants and soft loans.

In order to get the aid, the Lebanese government is planning a series of economic reforms, but it has had to face resistance by its domestic opposition because they would entail a series of privatisations, starting with the phone system, tax reform and affect social welfare.

The international conference on economic aid for Lebanon, also known as Paris III, was organised to provide the embattled country grants and low-interest loans to help it manage its staggering US$ 41 billion public debt, which represents 180 per cent of its GDP, a burden accumulated over the years but which skyrocketed last summer after the war between Israel and Hezbollah.

The aid package also represents an attempt by Western nations to support Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora’s beleaguered government. “The message is very clear. First of all we want to support Lebanon, its government and Prime Minister (Fuad) Siniora,” said EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

Lebanon’s crisis, which today saw students clash at Beirut’s Arab University, has provoked Iran and Saudi Arabia into action. The two countries respectively back Lebanon’s main adversaries, the Shia party Hezbollah and the Sunni-led government.

Iran’s official news agency IRNA and state television in Tehran reported a meeting between Saudi Arabia’s security chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and his Iranian counterpart Ali Larijani as well as a telephone conversion between Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal and his Iranian colleague Manouchehr Mottaki.

“Iran and Saudi Arabia [. . .] underlined the need to find a just and mutually-consented solution to the Lebanese crisis through consultations,” IRNA said.

The two ministers also talked about Iraq the need for “cooperation among regional states, especially Iraq neighbors” to be held in Baghdad.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah explicitly said that the Saudi-Iranian initiative was serious, but he added that whilst “governments from fraternal and friendly nations must help the Lebanese reach an agreement, whatever the two governments might agree to won’t be binding on the Lebanese.”

Furthermore, against Saudi hopes, he said that “no one in our outside Lebanon can expect the opposition to back off or give up its objectives.”

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