BEIRUT - Saudi Arabia has pledged $3 billion to Lebanon to help strengthen the country's armed forces and purchase weapons from France, Lebanon's president said Sunday, calling it the biggest grant ever for the nation's military.
Michel Sleiman, who made the surprise announcement in a televised national address, did not provide details. The Lebanese army has struggled to contain a rising tide of violence linked to the civil war in neighboring Syria, a conflict that has inflamed sectarian tensions in Lebanon and threatened the country's stability.
"The Saudi king decided to give a generous, well-appreciated grant to Lebanon amounting to $3 billion for the Lebanese army, which will allow it to buy new and modern weapons," Sleiman said. "The king pointed out that the weapons will be bought from France quickly." Sleiman said he hoped Paris would quickly meet the initiative.
French President Francois Hollande, who was in Riyadh on Sunday for talks with King Abdullah, said that France would help if requested to do so.
"If there are demands that are addressed to us, we will satisfy them," Hollande told reporters.
Fragile in the best of times, Lebanon is struggling to cope with the fallout from Syria's civil war. That conflict has deeply divided Lebanon along confessional lines, and paralyzed the country's ramshackle political system to the point that it has been stuck with a weak and ineffectual caretaker government since April. It has also seen a wave of deadly bombings and shootings that have fueled fears that Lebanon, which suffered a brutal 15-year civil war of its own that ended in 1990, could be slipping back toward full-blown sectarian conflict.
In a nod to those concerns, Sleiman said in his address that "Lebanon is threatened by sectarian conflict and extremism," and said that strengthening the army is a popular demand.
Lebanon's tenuous grip on stability was made clear Friday, when a car bomb killed senior Sunni politician Mohammed Chatah, who had been critical of Syria and Hezbollah.
On Sunday, hundreds of mourners packed into a mosque in downtown Beirut to bid farewell to Chatah, a former finance minister and top aide to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, whose own father was killed by a car bomb in 2005. Hariri has indirectly blamed Hezbollah for Chatah's death.