France’s president has vowed his country will stand against instability in Lebanon, two weeks after the assassination of a senior Lebanese intelligence official sparked clashes between pro- and anti-Syrian groups.
Francois Hollande also pledged that Paris and the European Union will help Lebanon deal with an influx of more than 100,000 refugees who have fled the civil war in neighbouring Syria.
“We are committed to give you guarantees regarding security, stability and the unity of Lebanon,” Hollande said after meeting President Michel Suleiman.
The October 19 car bomb that killed Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan, a powerful anti-Syrian intelligence official, stirred up sectarian tensions in Lebanon, where Sunnis and Shiites are deeply divided over the civil war in Syria, which has killed at least 36,000 people since it began in March 2011.
Lebanon’s two largest political coalitions have lined up on opposite sides of the conflict. The powerful Shiite group Hezbollah and its partners who dominate the Lebanese government have stood by Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Lebanon’s Sunni-led opposition backs the rebels seeking to topple the Damascus regime.
Assad and many in his inner circle are Alawites – an offshoot of Shiite Islam and a minority in Syria – while the rebels come mostly from the country’s Sunni majority.
Syria dominated Lebanon for 29 years after it first sent troops into it smaller neighbour in 1976, during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.
Damascus’ three-decade hold on Lebanon began to slip in 2005, after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Still, for years after Syrian troops pulled out, there were frequent assassinations of anti-Syrian figures in Lebanon, and the perpetrators have yet to be tracked down and put on trial.
Despite the Syrian military’s withdrawal from Lebanon, Assad has managed to maintain his influence in the country through allies, such as Hezbollah.
Hollande made a brief three-hour stop in Beirut en route to Saudi Arabia for talks with senior officials there that are expected to focus on the Syria conflict and Iran’s disputed nuclear programme.
France’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia said in comments published in the Al-Riyadh newspaper that Paris and Riyadh share views on both issues. The newspaper quoted Bertrand Besancenot as saying France backs tighter sanctions on Iran and calls on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down.
Saudi Arabia is Iran’s main regional rival and is a key backer of Syria’s rebels.
While in Beirut, Hollande said France will give “full assistance” in the investigation of al-Hassan’s assassination, saying “the Lebanese and the world want this. There will be no escape from justice.”
Al-Hassan was killed a day after he returned home from Paris, where his family has been living for years.
“Even though Lebanon is very close, it should not be the victim of this crisis,” Hollande said referring to Syria’s civil war. “We renew France’s full support to the stability, unity, independence and safety the territory of Lebanon.”
France, the one-time colonial ruler of both Syria and Lebanon, has been one of the most outspoken Western critics of the Assad regime, and announced in September that it has begun sending direct aid and money to five rebel-held Syrian cities as part of its intensified efforts to weaken Assad. It was the first such move by a Western power amid mounting calls for the international community to do more to prevent bloodshed.
French officials have acknowledged providing communications and other non-lethal equipment to Syrian rebel forces, but say they won’t provide weapons without international agreement. Paris played a leading role in the international campaign against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi last year.
France still enjoys wide influence in Lebanon and has about 900 peacekeepers deployed near the border with Israel.