Kuwaiti minister visits Beirut in first Gulf Arab trip since rift

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BEIRUT, Jan 22 (Reuters) - Kuwait's foreign minister visited Beirut on Saturday in the first trip by a senior Gulf Arab official since a diplomatic rift last year, saying he had delivered confidence-building proposals to Lebanon in a message coordinated with Gulf states.

Long strained by the influence of the Iran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah, Lebanon's ties with Gulf Arab states were plunged into a new crisis in October by comments from a former Lebanese minister criticising Saudi-led forces in Yemen.

Kuwait was one of several members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), including Saudi Arabia, that responded to George Kordahi's remarks by expelling the Lebanese ambassador and recalling its envoy to Beirut.

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Speaking after meeting Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Sheikh Ahmad Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Sabah said ties with Beirut had not been severed and relations were now in a phase of confidence-building measures.

He said he had delivered proposed confidence-building steps to Mikati and the Lebanese foreign minister and "the brothers in Lebanon should study them and know how to deal with these matters".

"All the GCC states are sympathetic and in solidarity with the Lebanese people ... the Kuwaiti move is a Gulf move," Sheikh Ahmad said.

Saudi Arabia and fellow Sunni-led Gulf Arab monarchies once spent billions of dollars in aid in Lebanon, and still provide jobs and a haven for much of Lebanon's huge diaspora.

But the friendship has been strained for years by the growing influence of the heavily armed Shi'ite group Hezbollah.

The diplomatic rift added to the difficulties facing Lebanon as it struggles with a financial crisis that the World Bank has described as one of the sharpest depressions ever recorded.

Sheikh Ahmad said the visit was "to support Lebanon and bring Lebanon out of all that it is going through, to help it overcome these difficulties, and to restore, God willing, the measures to build confidence with Lebanon".

The GCC called on Lebanon in December to prevent Hezbollah from conducting "terrorist operations", strengthen its military and ensure that arms were limited to state institutions.

Kordahi resigned in December.

Lebanese governments have long declared an official policy of disassociation from wars in the Middle East, even as Hezbollah has become involved in regional conflicts, deploying fighters to Syria to help President Bashar al-Assad.

Sheikh Ahmad said disassociation must be "in word and deed".

On Sunday, he is expected to meet President Michel Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, both political allies of Hezbollah.

Aoun and Mikati have called for dialogue with Saudi Arabia to resolve the diplomatic crisis.

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Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Writing by Nayera Abdallah and Tom Perry; Editing by Gareth Jones and Alex Richardson

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