France will stand against instability in Lebanon

Associated Press Modified: November 4, 2012 at 11:46 am •  Published: November 4, 2012
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BEIRUT (AP) — France's president pledged Sunday that 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.

Later in Saudi Arabia, Francois Hollande held further talks on Syria with King Abdullah, whose country has been a leading supporter of the forces trying to overthrow Syria's President Bashar Assad.

In Beirut, Hollande promised 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 neighboring Syria.

"We are committed to give you guarantees regarding security, stability and unity of Lebanon," Hollande told reporters after meeting President Michel Suleiman.

The Oct. 19 car bomb that killed Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, a powerful anti-Syrian intelligence official, stirred up deadly 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 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 its smaller neighbor 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.

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 three-hour stop in Beirut en route to Saudi Arabia for talks that focused on the Syria conflict and Iran's disputed nuclear program. Saudi officials said Hollande arrived in the Red Sea port of Jiddah, accompanied by a high-level delegation that included French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and a senior trade official.