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French dispel fears on aid to Muslims

Paris (Reuter) - France sought yesterday to stamp out possible controversy over a statement by a junior minister who said French aid to war-hit Lebanese civilians was in part being distributed by Hizbollah's Muslim fundamentalist guerrillas.

"France's attitude to Hizbollah has not changed," Jacques Rummelhardt, a foreign ministry spokesman, said about a weekend statement during a visit to Lebanon by Xavier Emmanuelli, junior minister for emergency humanitarian action.

While touring southern Lebanon, Mr Emmanuelli answered positively when asked if he knew French aid given to the Lebanese government for distribution was being passed on to Hizbollah for distribution in the field.

"Hizbollah participates ... in medical rescue and social welfare [in southern Lebanon]. There is no reason to exclude them," Mr Emmanuelli said.

The statements were potentially damaging politically since Paris courts have said the Iranian-backed Shia Muslin group was thought to be connected to a bomb attack in Paris in 1986 in which half a dozen people were killed and dozens wounded. The French military also holds Hizbollah responsible for the suicide bombing of a French position in Beirut in 1983 in which 58 paratroops were killed. Another 241 American Marines were killed in a similar attack there the same day.

Mr Rummelhardt said yesterday: "Mr Emmanuelli was not thinking of anything beyond recognising that Hizbollah can be involved in certain charitable activities.

"But this changes nothing to France's attitude which, I insist, is that Hizbollah must scrupulously respect the 26 April ceasefire agreements ending the cycle of violence."

President Jacques Chirac said last week that France's renewed commitment to Lebanon was demonstrated by aid to civilians who suffered in Israel's retaliatory blitz between 11 and 27 April after rocket attacks by Hizbollah guerrillas.

Mr Chirac, who visited Lebanon days before the conflict broke out and pledged support for Lebanon's sovereignty, has said that French efforts to help broker the ceasefire gave Paris a new diplomatic foothold in the region.

France had a mandate over Lebanon and Syria between the two world wars.