Lebanon receives first French weapons for anti-jihadist fight
BEIRUT - Lebanon on Monday received the first French weapons in a $3 billion Saudi-funded programme intended to bolster its army to take on jihadist threats, particularly along its border with Syria.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian accompanied the first tranche of weapons, including anti-tank guided missiles, which were handed over at an air force base in Beirut.
"France and Lebanon have a fraternal relationship that has been marked over the past three years by a sharp deterioration in the security situation in the Levant, which has become an existential threat to the region," Le Drian said.
"Lebanon is under unprecedented pressure (from jihadist groups)... and this makes border control vital for its security," he added.
"In this critical context, it is therefore essential that Lebanon's friends and allies mobilise to contribute to its security and stability."
Over the next four years, France is expected to deliver to Lebanon 250 combat and transport vehicles, seven Cougar helicopters, three small warships and a range of surveillance and communications equipment.
The entire $3 billion (2.8 billion euro) cost of the programme is being borne by Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh is eager to bolster Lebanon's army to take on jihadist groups like the Islamic State group and Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, instead of leaving the job to the powerful Lebanese Hezbollah movement, which is backed by Saudi's regional rival Iran.
The contract also promises seven years of training for the 70,000-strong Lebanese army and 10 years of equipment maintenance.
At the ceremony on Monday, Lebanon's Defence Minister Samir Mokbel welcomed the delivery, saying the country's fight against extremism was a common battle.
"A victory for Lebanon against terrorism is a victory for all countries, near and far, who are threatened by terrorism," he said.
He thanked Saudi Arabia for financing the weapons delivery and France for "its deep understanding of all the threats that Lebanon faces, whether militarily at the border, or internally with the influx of refugees that threatens general stability."
The weapons deal comes as Lebanon's army battles to hold back the spillover from the conflict in neighbouring Syria.
In the past year, Lebanese soldiers have repeatedly battled jihadists from both the Islamic State group and Al-Nusra along the border with Syria.
Last August, extremist fighters from the two groups briefly overran the Lebanese border town of Arsal, seizing several dozen Lebanese soldiers and police.
The groups have since executed four of the hostages, with a fifth dying of wounds he sustained during the fighting. They are still holding 25 Lebanese.
The conflict in Syria has exacerbated sectarian tensions in Lebanon, and the influx of more than one million refugees has tested its limited resources.