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First delivery of Saudi-funded French arms arrives in Lebanon

media The Lebanese army going to fight Al-Nusra last year AFP

Lebanon on Monday took delivery of the first French weapons in a 2.8-billion-euro Saudi-funded programme to beef up its army, faced with incursions from armed Islamist groups fighting in neighbouring Syria.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian accompanied the first tranche, which included anti-tank guided missiles, to an air force base in Beirut, where he was met by his Lebanese counterpart, Samir Mokbal.

Over the next four years France is to deliver 250 combat and transport vehicles, seven Cougar helicopters, three small warships and a surveillance and communications equipment, all paid for by Jeddah.

The 70,000-strong Lebanese army has been weakened by Israeli and Syrian presence in the country and is less well armed than the Shia-Muslim Hezbollah militia, which is backed by Saudi Arabia's rival, Iran.

Last August fighters from the Islamic State armed group and the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front briefly took control of the Lebanese border town of Arsal, capturing several dozen soldiers and police.

They have since executed four hostages, while another died from wounds sustained in fighting, and are still holding 25.

The conflict and the influx of one million refugees have exacerbated sectarian tensions in the country.

The situation poses "an existential threat to the region," Le Drian said.

"Lebanon is under unprecedented pressure and this makes border control vital for its security," he went on."In this critical context, it is therefore essential that Lebanon's friends and allies mobilise to contribute to its security and stability."

"A victory for Lebanon against terrorism is a victory for all countries, near and far, who are threatened by terrorism," said Moqbal, thanking Saudi Arabia for funding the weapons delivery.

The US has provided about three-quarters of Lebanon's foreign military aid over the past decade, as well as special forces teams to train its elite units, according to IHS Jane's, a London-based think tank.

Iran has also offered to provide weapons but the Lebanese government is split over whether to accept the aid.

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