x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

US will assist Lebanon in securing its border with Syria, says envoy

Washington's top Middle East diplomat warns that the crisis in Syria must not be allowed to spill over into neighbouring Lebanon.

BEIRUT // The crisis in Syria must not be allowed to spill over into neighbouring Lebanon, warned Washington's top Middle East diplomat during talks with senior government officials.

Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, arrived in Beirut for an official visit on Wednesday.

"[Mr Feltman] highlighted US concerns that developments in Syria not contribute to instability in Lebanon or in other countries in the region," said a statement issued by the US Embassy in Beirut. "Ambassador Feltman shared the grave concerns of the US for the people of Syria and our desire to see the Syrian government end its brutality against them immediately."

The envoy's comments came on the same day that a US television network broadcast excerpts of an interview with the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, in which he denied ordering the killing of civilians.

The UN estimates that more than 4,000 people have been killed during the crackdown on pro-reform protests nine months ago.

The movement has since swelled into an open revolt against Mr Al Assad's government.

Mr Feltman's visit comes amid increased tension along Lebanon's border with Syria and political stalemate at home, where pro-Syrian sentiment remains strong.

Thousands of Syrians have fled into Lebanon across the northern border.

There have also been reports of Syrian army incursions into Lebanon. Mr Feltman, who served as ambassador to Lebanon from 2004 to 2008, also stressed US support for Lebanese institutions, particularly the country's armed forces.

The embassy statement described these armed forces as "Lebanon's sole legitimate defence force", a clear repudiation of the claim by the Islamist movement Hizbollah that its militias are essential for maintaining the country's security.

Under the UN resolution that ended the Lebanese-Israeli war in 2006, all of Lebanon's militias are required to disarm. Hizbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said earlier this week that his group was increasing its stockpile of weapons.

During his meeting with the prime minister, Nejib Mikati, Mr Feltman delivered a letter from Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, welcoming his government's funding of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL).

Earlier this year, Mr Feltman warned the Lebanese government against failure to pay the country's 49 per cent share of this year's budget - $32 million (Dh117 million) - for the UN tribunal, which is investigating the assassination of the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

Mr Mikati announced last week that the money had been transferred to the Netherlands-based tribunal, diffusing a brewing political crisis.

Some cabinet members, including those aligned with Hizbollah, had opposed the payment.

zconstantine@thenational.ae