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Embattled Lebanon PM seeks foreign aid

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s government, still reeling from Hezbollah-led protests that sparked violence this week, expects political backing and billions of dollars of foreign assistance at a Paris aid conference on Thursday.

Though the opposition had lifted country-wide roadblocks that paralyzed the country on Tuesday, tension remained high on Wednesday.

Government loyalists and opposition followers exchanged fire in northern Lebanon after the funeral of a man killed in the protests, witnesses and a security source said.

Thousands had packed the streets of the northern city of Tripoli for the funeral of the Sunni Muslim government supporter who was killed in a clash with pro-opposition Allawites. “Sunni blood is boiling,” chanted the mourners, some of them armed. One person was wounded in the gunbattle.

Tuesday’s opposition protests, aimed at toppling the pro-Western government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, shut down much of Lebanon and sparked its worst unrest since the 1975-1990 civil war. Three people were killed and 176 wounded.

Shi’a Hezbollah and its allies, including Christian leader Michel Aoun, want veto power in government and early parliamentary elections.

The opposition lifted country-wide roadblocks late on Tuesday but threatened “more effective” measures if Siniora refused to meet its demands.

Siniora has vowed to stand firm against “intimidation” and on Wednesday left for Paris where he hopes his foreign allies will offer financial assistance to an economy saddled with massive public debt and reeling from war.

The government hopes for up to $5 billion in assistance to help ease the burden of Lebanon’s $40.5 billion public debt — equal to 180 percent of gross domestic product. It also wants aid to help cover the costs of the July-August war between Hezbollah and Israel.

Saudi-Iranian Diplomacy

The Beirut ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, which supports the government, and Iran, a backer of Hezbollah, were in contact with various political leaders on Tuesday to try to defuse the crisis in the country, a political source said.

Senior Saudi official Prince Bandar bin Sultan had traveled to Tehran to discuss Lebanon, the source said. An Iranian envoy visited Riyadh earlier this month as well as Syria, a key player in Lebanon.

Security forces detained 132 people over Tuesday’s violence.

Traffic in Beirut returned to normal, although the city center was still blocked by a protest the opposition has been holding there since December 1.

The main road to Beirut airport, closed on Tuesday, was open and flights were running as normal, an airport official said.

The European Commission said it would pledge almost 400 million euros ($520 million) in grants and loans to Lebanon at the Paris conference. France said it would offer a 500 million euro loan on very favorable terms.

The United States, which has repeatedly stated its backing for Siniora, has promised substantial assistance. It has accused Hezbollah of trying to launch a coup against Siniora, who came to office after the withdrawal of Syrian troops in 2005.

(Additional reporting by Nadim Ladki and Laila Bassam)


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