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French Version

Blair delivers pledge of support for army's presence in South

Outgoing premier plays down role in delaying cease-fire

British Premier Tony Blair pledged to help train and strengthen Lebanon's army, now deployed in the South for the first time in decades. On his first visit to Beirut, Blair was greeted by angry demonstrators protesting his position on Israel's war against Lebanon.

In a joint news conference with his Lebanese counterpart, Blair said that Britain will provide "training, equipment, and any help we can give."

Blair also said his country would commit over $75 million in aid to Lebanon this year.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora asked for Blair's help with postwar reconstruction and in the "empowerment and enhancement of our army and our internal security forces."

As Blair stood beside Siniora, Caoimhe Butterly, an Irish peace activist, shouted that the British leader's visit was "an insult."

"Shame on you Tony Blair," Butterly yelled, holding a banner that read: "Boycott Israeli apartheid." Her protest was captured by live television cameras, until security guards, holding her by her arms and legs, hauled her out.

The two leaders watched in silence, then Siniora said: "It's all right. We are a democracy ... We respect all sorts of expression."

Blair said he understood the anger in Lebanon, where people saw his refusal to call for an immediate cease-fire as implicit support of Israel's aggression, which killed more than 1,200 people in Lebanon, most of them civilians.

"Of course feelings run high, innocent people lost their lives here, this country has been set back by years," said Blair, the second Western leader to come to Beirut since fighting erupted in July. French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin arrived in the Lebanese capital July 17, on the fifth day of the war.

Blair has defended his stance on the war, saying it was important to take the time to craft a settlement that would hold rather than settle for a quick peace likely to collapse.

Siniora urged the British leader to work to revive efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict through the UN Security Council on the basis of an Arab plan that offers Israel peace if it withdraws from Arab land occupied in 1967.

"Only by addressing the underlying causes can we guarantee peace and security for the Middle East," Siniora said.

Blair vowed to use the rest of his time in office seeking Middle East peace.

"It is important that we do everything we can to re-energize that [peace] process, to give ourselves the best chance of achieving a lasting, comprehensive settlement of that issue with two states living side by side in peace," Blair said.

"I hope out of what has been a tragic and terrible time, we can rebuild in a way that gives not just lasting peace here in the Lebanon but a lasting peace in the region," Blair said.

"I believe it can be done. And furthermore I commit myself for the remainder of my time in office to do everything I can to bring that about."

Blair arrived in Beirut after a trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, where he pushed for a resumption of the peace process and the formation of a Palestinian national unity government.

Siniora, along with Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh, greeted Blair at the airport and they drove into Beirut together in a 22-vehicle motorcade, amid tight security measures, with police cordoning off a large section of Downtown Beirut to traffic and prohibiting parking on the route of Blair's motorcade.

Siniora's office had said Blair would also meet Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. But sources close to Berri said Sunday he would be "out of town."

Asked whether it was a snub, Blair's spokesman said: "That's a matter for Nabih Berri."

He said Blair would meet the Lebanese Cabinet, except for its two Hizbullah members - who chose not to attend the meeting - although he would have been "perfectly happy" to do so.

Salloukh, a Shiite minister close to both Berri and Hizbullah, said that "on the official level and out of commitment to protocol and diplomatic norms we greeted Mr. Blair."

"But this does not stop us from expressing our opposition to the British stance during the Israeli aggression on Lebanon especially facilitating the arrival of destructive armaments to Israel through Britain," referring to the use of British airports by US jets carrying missiles to Israel.

A spokesman for Blair said the visit was aimed at expressing Britain's support for UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls for deployment of a beefed-up international force in Lebanon and the disarmament of Hizbullah.

'I would spit on him:' Protesters hit the streets to condemn visit by British PM

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's first visit to Lebanon was greeted by thousands of angry demonstrators Monday, accusing him of being biased toward Israel during the 34-day war that killed nearly 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

Lebanese troops, riot police and barbed-wire barriers kept the demonstrators well away from the Grand Serail building in Downtown Beirut where Blair met Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. However, Hizbullah volunteers surrounded the protesters to keep them from straying beyond the allowed boundaries or from clashing with security forces. The rally stayed peaceful despite the heated and angry messages that emanated from the crowd.

"If Blair was in front of me, I would spit on him," said Hajje Fatmeh Rahal, one of the 1,500 protesters who gathered near the Fouad Chehab Bridge according to a Reuters estimate. The number is disputed as The Associated Press put the total number of protesters at 5,000.

"Lebanon is free, Tony Blair get out," the protesters chanted.

"Tony Blair is Israeli," said Mohammad, a Hizbullah supporter who refused to give his last name. "Who invited him here? I want to know why he thought we wanted his help."

Blair arrived in Lebanon's capital after an earlier trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, where he pushed for a resumption of the stalled Middle East peace process and the formation of a Palestinian national unity government.

Among the Lebanese flags waving in the crowd were pictures of Hizbullah's secretary general, Sayyed Hussein Nasrallah. Some flags even juxtaposed the two images, placing Nasrallah's face over the cedar tree on the Lebanese flag.

The Lebanese Communist Party also had a significant presence at the demonstration, sporting Che Guevara portraits or waving Lebanese flags with the communist hammer and sickle symbol in the corner.

Large placards, printed in red and black ink, were distributed among participants at the protest, all attributed to the Lebanese Youth Committee.

"Blair ... you killer ... Go to Hell," one sign read.

Signs were printed in both Arabic and English, although many English signs displayed a weak command of the English language, unusual for Hizbullah-organized public relations events that often have bold message correctly written in both languages.

"USA, UK, Israel: three corns of the Devil," one sign read, mistaking corns for horns, but continuing the protest's overarching theme of depicting Western actions in the Middle East as being inspired by evil.

A spokesman for Blair said the visit was aimed at expressing Britain's support for UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls for the deployment of a beefed-up international force in Lebanon and the disarmament of Hizbullah.

London has pledged $75 million in humanitarian aid to Lebanon and would be contributing a further $37 million toward the cost of the United Nations force, a spokesman for Blair announced.

Beirut 12-09-2006
The Daily Star

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