* Saudi Arabia financing deal to help Lebanese army
* Under deal France to provide air, land, sea equipment
* French-Saudi ties have improved sharply amid Syria crisis
By John Irish
PARIS, Nov 4 France and Lebanon signed on
Tuesday a Saudi-funded deal worth $3 billion to provide French
weapons and military equipment to the Lebanese army to help it
fight jihadis encroaching from neighbouring Syria.
The Lebanese army, one of the few institutions not overtaken
by the sectarian divisions that plague the tiny country, has few
resources to deal with the instability on its border and has
been seeking to modernise its military hardware.
Saudi Arabia sees itself as the defender of Sunni Islam in
the region and wants to help beef up Lebanese security forces in
the face of threats from both the jihadis and Lebanon's powerful
Shi'ite movement Hezbollah.
French, Lebanese and Saudi officials attended Tuesday's
signing ceremony in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
"I welcome the signature of the contract to help the
Lebanese army," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in a
statement. "This agreement, financed by a Saudi grant, will
contribute to strengthen the Lebanese army, which guarantees the
unity and stability of Lebanon."
He gave no further details. The French defence ministry is
due to outline details of the contract on Wednesday.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told parliament
on Oct. 8 the deal included land, air and naval equipment.
Lebanese officials fear Islamist insurgents from the Syrian
war are trying to expand their influence into Sunni Muslim areas
of northern Lebanon. They see a rising threat from groups such
as al Qaeda's Nusra Front and the ultra-hardline Islamic State,
which may try to open up new supply routes between Syria and
Lebanon as winter unfolds.
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 from crossing into Lebanon.
"This deal will help to ensure the army's mission to defend
its territory and to fight terrorism at a time when Lebanon is
threatened," Fabius said.
Lebanon, a former French colony, has officially tried to
distance itself from Syria's civil war, but its Hezbollah
movement has sent fighters to support Syrian President Bashar
al-Assad, a member of the Shi'ite-derived Alawite minority.
Assad and Hezbollah are both backed by Shi'ite regional
Lebanon, which is still rebuilding after its own 15-year
civil war, has also seen clashes between gunmen loyal to
opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, as well as militant
strikes on the army and cross-border attacks by Syrian rebels.
Saudi Arabia, which has already provided $1 billion in
military aid to the Lebanese army, has recently taken part in
U.S.-led air strikes against Islamic State militants in Syria.
French and Saudi relations have improved sharply in the last
The two countries hold similar views on the Syria conflict,
where both insist Assad must step down, and Paris' tough line in
nuclear talks between Iran - Riyadh's arch regional rival - and
major powers have helped it appear as the main defender of Saudi
interests at the negotiating table.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)