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French Version

Siniora picks up $7.6 billion at Paris III

Despite a less than encouraging picture presented by the Lebanese on Thursday at home, the situation at Paris III was different, with the international aid conference raking in $7.6 billion in pledges to bolster the government of Lebanese Premier Fouad Siniora.

French President Jacques Chirac opened the one-day donor conference, saying Lebanon needed generous support to overcome its economic woes after "appalling clashes" in 2006.

The event also witnessed a cacophony of calls for an Israeli withdrawal from the Shebaa Farms and full adherence to UN Security Resolution 1701.

The meeting came on the same day as street clashes erupted Thursday morning between opposing factions, leaving three dead and over 150 wounded.

The previous day, some of the worst street violence Lebanon has seen in years also erupted, with three people killed and more than 100 wounded during a general strike called by the Hizbullah-led opposition.

"[Lebanon] is a country that is obstinately seeking rebirth and more than ever needs the unanimous support of the international community," Chirac told the conference.

High-ranking representatives of more than 40 countries and organizations were attending the meeting, including Siniora, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon.

Lebanon's public debt has reached $41 billion, more than 180 percent of Gross Domes-tic Product.

Saudi Prince Saud al-Faisal and Arab League boss Amr Moussa turned the international conference into a call for the liberation of Shebaa Farms, as "the most important solution" to ending the crisis in Lebanon.

"The Paris III conference comes at a critical time, as Lebanon is in real crisis," Moussa said.

"Besides the economic assistance, Lebanon needs political assistance," he said, adding: "I assure you that one of the most important things at this point is the liberation of Shebaa Farms."

Moussa also said that the Arab League was ready and "determined" to come and help defuse the ongoing political deadlock in Lebanon.

Besides the dollars and euros, another set of numbers being repeated by US and French officials is the return of international calls for the full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701.

"Resolution 1701 has to be fully implemented and all illegal arms need to be removed from all the countries in the region," said Chirac.

He then turned the floor over to Siniora, who said that Lebanon cannot surmount its economic difficulties alone.

"Your support will be essential in seeing Lebanon through," the premier told the conference. "The cost of failure is too great to contemplate."

He added that Lebanon is "on the verge of a deep recession," mainly blaming Israel for plunging the country into one of the worst "destabilizing" period of its history.

"Even in times of great despair our determination has never diminished. We have faith in the people of Lebanon," he said.

Prior to the conference, Siniora and Rice met to discuss the situation Lebanon, at which time the US official reiterated Washington's commitment to Siniora's government.

"The US is deeply concerned about the people of Lebanon and is committed to finding enduring solutions for the challenges they face," Rice said. "The US-Lebanon Partnership is making important progress toward that goal, helping to lay the foundation for sustained economic growth and long-term stability," she added referring to a fund being set up by American companies to create Lebanese jobs.

Ban appealed to donors to help reduce Lebanon's heavy debt burden and called on its neighbors to fully respect Lebanese independence and sovereignty. Ban said "political stability has to be the bedrock on which we consolidate economic recovery and reconstruction."

In an apparent reference to Syria and Iran, he called on "Lebanon's neighbors to fully respect its unity, independence and sovereignty."

"Lebanese democracy can only work if its leaders are free to make decisions and pursue reconciliation without fear of external pressure or interference," Ban said.

He appealed to all Lebanese and their government "to exercise maximum restraint, refrain from violence and engage in continuous and sincere dialogue for the future and for an independent and democratic Lebanon."

Chirac reveled in the spotlight as host of what was likely to be one of his last major international events. Part taskmaster, part telethon host, he used wit, charm and chutzpah to drum up funds for Lebanon - home to one of his best friends, slain former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

"Be brief, be good and be generous," Chirac urged dignitaries as they detailed their donations. "We'll scrap lunch if we don't get through all the speeches." Some laughed, but he was serious. Lunch ended up being late after Chirac asked for a show of hands to see whether envoys favored breaking to eat. The verdict was mixed, so they pressed on.

The final total, he announced, was $7.6 billion in aid, loans and other help.

To some donors, Chirac offered praise - as when he hailed the "militant generosity" of Italy for its $156 million pledge. To others, he was brisk.

"But the Netherlands is a rich country!" he barked.

Apologetic Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot responded: "We have a government that just resigned."

After Kuwait's envoy finished his presentation, ending with the line, "may the peace of God be upon you," Chirac replied: "I hope the peace of God will be upon us - but may the peace of financial resources be on us too!"

Beirut 25-01-2007
Rym Ghazal
The Daily Star

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