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Chirac drives Lebanon aid effort

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PARIS, France (CNN) -- French President Jacques Chirac kicked off an international donor conference aimed at raising billions in aid for battle-torn Lebanon by offering the government a 500 million euros ($650 million dollars) loan at "advantageous terms."

"We are here to reaffirm our commitment to support Lebanon in its efforts over time to pick up the challenge of reconstruction," Chirac said Thursday to the crowd of conference attendees representing 30 nations.

"France, with the government of Lebanon, will cooperate and accompany the economy and social reforms."

The drive to rebuild Lebanon follows a summer wrought with death and destruction brought on by a 34-day war between Israel and Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerillas.

The fighting largely stopped after the August 14 passage of Resolution 1701 by the U.N. Security Council, which also called for the re-establishment of Lebanese government control over the area.

In his speech to the conference, Chirac highlighted the importance of implementing U.N. resolution 1701 and underscored its objective, which is to "help this country recover its full sovereignty."

In addition, Chirac said unsettled issues between Israel and Lebanon, such as the disputed Sheba farms area on the Israeli-Lebanon border and the still-captive Israeli soldiers, should be resolved.

"It is up to the Lebanese people to encourage dialogue to all people of that nation and France, as old friends of Lebanon, has always advocated the voice of unity and all the actors responsible in the region in particular have to act," he said.

Chirac's speech touting unity in Lebanon comes amidst ongoing protests in that country aimed at toppling Lebanese Prime Minister Foud Siniora's pro-Western government.

The protests, which began last month, have paralyzed the formerly bustling commercial heart of the Lebanese capital. They come as as part of the latest effort by the opposition, led by Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, to gain a greater share of political power in Lebanon.

Although Siniora successfully attended Thursday's conference in Paris, a strike earlier in the week shut down access to Beirut International Airport and the highway to Damascus and threatened to keep him grounded.

Siniora's government has been under siege since December 1 when the opposition began its efforts to remove him from power or force concessions that would give the opposition a greater say.

Meanwhile, Siniora has been holed up in his office behind coils of barbed wire, just a stone's throw from the demonstrators.

Lebanon's political crisis began in November when Hezbollah's four ministers in Siniora's Cabinet and two others resigned before the government voted to support an international tribunal to investigate and try suspects in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

A United Nations investigation blamed some Syrian officials for Hariri's killing in February 2005.

The November 21 assassination of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, a leading opponent of Syrian influence in Lebanon, also added to the tumultuous political climate.

Damascus denies any involvement in killings or other assassinations of anti-Syrian figures in the past two years.

Hariri's killing sparked a wave of protests, dubbed the "Cedar Revolution," which resulted in the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon after nearly three decades and the rise of an anti-Syrian government led by Siniora.

But Hezbollah, a Shiite political party and militia backed by Syria and Iran, was bolstered by a war with Israel over the summer.


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