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 any further 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, considering the historical relations that tie it to Lebanon and the military cooperation between the two countries."
Sleiman said he hoped Paris would quickly meet the initiative, and help the Lebanese army with arms, training and maintenance.
French President Francois Hollande, who was in Riyadh Sunday for talks with Saudi 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 only ended in 1990, could be slowly 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.
The Lebanese army is generally seen as a unifying force in the country, and draws its ranks from all of Lebanon's sects. But it has struggled to contain the escalating violence in the country since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict. It is also widely considered much weaker than the Shiite Hezbollah militant group, which is armed and funded by regional Shiite-power and Saudi-rival Iran.
The Saudi pledge appeared aimed, at least in part, at boosting the military in relation to Hezbollah.
Historically, the Lebanese army has been equipped by the United States and France.
Washington has provided hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid in recent years to Lebanon that has included armored vehicles, weapons and training for the Lebanese army. The U.S. says the program aims to strengthen Lebanese government institutions.
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 landmark mosque in downtown Beirut to bid farewell to Chatah, a former finance minister and top aide to ex-Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Chatah, a Sunni, was affiliated with Hariri's Western-backed coalition, which has been locked in a bitter feud with a rival camp led by Hezbollah. Hariri, whose own father was killed by a massive car bomb in 2005, has indirectly blamed Hezbollah for Chatah's assassination.
After a somber funeral service inside Beirut's blue-domed Mohammed al-Amin Mosque, pallbearers carried Chatah's casket to the adjacent funeral tent where he was buried next to Hariri's father, Rafik. At several points during the ceremony, some in the crowd broke into chants of "a terrorist, a terrorist, Hezbollah is a terrorist!"
Speaking later, Fouad Siniora, an ally of Chatah, praised his late colleague as a voice of moderation, and promised those in the crowd that such political killings will not knock the Lebanese off their course.
"We will not surrender. We will not back down. We are not afraid of terrorists and murderers. It is they who should be afraid. They kill to govern. While we reiterate our commitment to Lebanon of coexistence and civil peace," he said.
Siniora, who is a former prime minister, also took a swipe at Hezbollah, saying "we have decided to liberate Lebanon from the occupation of illegitimate weapons." Hezbollah's critics accuse the group of being a veritable state-within-a-state because it has maintained its own militia.
The car bombing that killed Chatah was reminiscent of a string of assassinations of around a dozen members of the anti-Syrian Hariri camp between 2004 and 2008, the biggest of which was the powerful blast that killed Hariri's father, Rafik, who also was a former prime minister.