France says $3 billion Lebanon arms deal to go ahead

French Defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (L) leaves after a war cabinet meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris September 25, 2014. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen/Files (Reuters)

PARIS (Reuters) - France will soon provide weapons and military equipment to the Lebanese army as part of a $3 billion grant from Saudi Arabia to help it fight jihadis encroaching into Lebanon from Syria, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Wednesday. One of the few institutions not overtaken by the sectarian divisions that plague Lebanon, the army has few resources to deal with the instability on its border and has been seeking to modernise its military hardware. "All the work is done and the President (Francois Hollande) indicated yesterday to Mr (Saad) al-Hariri that the conditions to fulfil the contract had been met," Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told parliament. "This is a necessity. The Lebanese army is the last barrier that exists against the security threats this country faces." Former Prime Minister Hariri, who has close links to the Saudi royal family, was in Paris on Tuesday to meet Hollande. He said that another Saudi grant of $1 billion for the Lebanese army had also been finalised. Jihadis attacked and briefly seized the Lebanese border town of Arsal in August and since then the army has stepped up its efforts to prevent fighters, most notably from al Qaeda's Syrian wing Nusra Front, from crossing into Lebanon. Beirut has officially tried to distance itself from Syria's conflict, but the country's powerful Shi'ite movement Hezbollah has sent fighters to aid President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite. Assad, like Hezbollah, is backed by Shi'ite power Iran. Lebanon, which is still rebuilding after its own 15-year civil war, has also seen clashes between gunmen loyal to opposing sides of the Syrian conflict, as well as militant strikes on the army and crossborder attacks by Syrian rebels. The Sunni Muslim kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has taken part in air strikes in neighbouring Syria, may be seeking to bolster the army as a counterbalance to Hezbollah. Le Drian said France would provide land, air and naval equipment. "This project will be concluded and we have already started by renovating the Lebanese army's helicopter fleet," he said. The contract, which was initially agreed in December, has been under intense scrutiny for several months as negotiations between Paris and Riyadh over the deal have proved more complicated than first imagined. (Reporting By John Irish; Editing by Mark John)