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Rice seeks to bolster fragile government in Lebanon

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sought on Tuesday to bolster the fragile government of Lebanon, the country that has fared best in a wave of violence and quasi-civil war that engulfed three Mideast nations where U.S.-backed elections have been held.

Rice held a morning meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora to close a two-day visit to Paris.

Saniora was to meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy later in the day.

Before her meeting with Saniora, Rice emphasized the importance of U.N. efforts toward a tribunal to prosecute those responsible for the assassination of Lebanese ex-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and noted the active U.S. and French roles in Lebanon in recent years.

"We have accomplished a lot," Rice said on France's TF-1 television Monday night. "But now we are in a phase in which we need to carry through on the tribunal, in which we need to carry through on the obligations of the U.N. Security Council resolution that will not tolerate Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs, and to support the Saniora government."

While in Paris, the top U.S. diplomat also met with representatives of other nations that are concerned with the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region, and welcomed France's new conservative-led government with a round of diplomatic meetings.

Lebanon is facing its most serious political crisis since the end of the 1975-90 civil war, with the Western-backed government and the Hezbollah-led opposition locked in a fierce power struggle. Rival Lebanese politicians have not met since a national dialogue conference ended last year without agreement.

Parliament is not functioning and the government just barely, after a quarter of Cabinet members resigned. Opposition supporters have been holding a sit-in outside Saniora's office since Dec. 1, calling for his resignation and the formation of a new government.

Saniora, backed by the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority, the United States and the West, has refused to step down.

The Lebanese army has also been battling al-Qaida-inspired militants barricaded in a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon for more than a month. Separately, the country is still fixing the damage inflicted by Israeli bombers in last year's war between the Jewish state and Hezbollah guerrillas based in Lebanon.

The political crisis has taken on an increasingly sectarian tone and has broken out in street clashes between supporters of pro- and anti-government factions in recent months.

Violence has followed each of three U.S.-backed elections in the Middle East in the past three years - in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. On Sunday, Rice acknowledged the bad news.

"Yeah, it's really hard," she said. "It's hard for democracy to take hold in a place where it has not taken hold before, but I am confident about the triumph of these values because I've seen it before."

In January, Rice announced a tripling of U.S. aid to Lebanon to nearly US$770 million (euro572 million) to help Saniora's fragile democratic government.

The donation would include $220 million (euro163 million) in military aid. The money could buy small arms, ammunition, spare parts and Humvees, U.S. officials said.

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