Lebanese premier arrives in France for donors' conference

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora arrived in France Wednesday for talks with President Jacques Chirac and to attend a major international conference to raise funds for Lebanon.

Saniora flew to Paris a day after the Hezbollah-led opposition staged protests in Lebanon that turned into violent clashes with government supporters, raising questions about whether he would leave.

An international donors' conference in Paris on Thursday aims to raise billions of dollars to help reduce Lebanon's soaring debt and rebuild the country after the devastation wrought by the war between Israel and Hezbollah in July and August.

At least three people were killed and more than 170 injured Tuesday as Hezbollah-led protesters burned tires and cars and clashed with government supporters, paralyzing Beirut and areas across Lebanon in the worst violence yet in the pro-Iranian group's campaign to oust Saniora's U.S.-backed government.

The road to the airport, closed by burning tires and earthen barricades set up by Hezbollah's supporters, was reopened by the Lebanese army shortly after midnight Tuesday.

Since the Hezbollah-led opposition began open-ended protests against his government on Dec. 1, Saniora has lived at the Cabinet headquarters in central Beirut protected by troops and security forces amid layers of barbed wire, to keep at bay thousands of Hezbollah supporters camping a few meters from his office.

Also Tuesday, Chirac criticized the anti-government protests, suggesting the unrest in Lebanon could discourage aid donors taking part in the Paris conference.

In a television interview, Chirac said the conference was urgent because Saniora's government "has no more money" and needs to pay for soldiers' weapons and general expenses, reports AP.

Chirac said those behind the unrest had demonstrated behavior that "is not of a nature to encourage those who want to help, (and) to give Lebanon the means to survive."

"Yet, there are things to pay: the Lebanese army that now, fortunately, occupies southern Lebanon needs to be paid; weapons must be bought; the full operation of Lebanon must be ensured," he said.

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