UK to train Lebanese troops amid fears of Syria overspill

Beirut

Britain will help train 2,000 Lebanese soldiers this year amid heightened concern that Syria's neighbour will be sucked into the country's civil war, the Foreign Secretary has said.

The announcement by William Hague during a two-day visit to Lebanon came amid a tense face-off between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which rebels accuse of assisting Syrian regime troops. The UK also pledged to provide "equipment support" for the Lebanese army, though officials declined to provide details.

Britain is hoping to help shore up stability in Lebanon, where politics are closely interwoven with those across the border in Syria. Since the start of the uprising the situation has become increasingly unstable, with armed clashes and a car bombing that killed a security official in the capital Beirut last year.

The armed forces have so far managed to contain any large-scale conflagration, but there are threats by the FSA to attack targets in Lebanon if Hezbollah does not withdraw its fighters backing President Bashar al-Assad. An FSA spokesman said that rebels had struck a Hezbollah base in their heartland of the Hermel, but the claims could not be corroborated.

Britain said it would earmark £11.5m of humanitarian funds it has pledged towards providing relief in Lebanon, taking the total it has provided to the country's refugees to £19.5m. "The situation in Syria remains of enormous concern. The appalling humanitarian crisis, the loss of life and the threat to regional security cannot be ignored or underestimated," Mr Hague said before a meeting with the Lebanese Army Commander, General Jean Kahwaji.

"The UK recognises in particular the critical role played by the Lebanese Armed Forces in maintaining stability. That is why we are increasing our training assistance package." The army is understood to have put forward a plan detailing areas in which it needs support.

In addition to its activities in Syria, Hezbollah – the political wing of which dominates the Lebanese government – is also under the spotlight for allegedly targeting Israeli tourists in attacks overseas.

Mr Hague said he had discussed the organisation's alleged role in a bus bombing that killed five Israeli tourists in Bulgaria last year with the country's Prime Minister Najib Mikati and President Michel Sleiman. Two suspects are believed to be in hiding in Lebanon.

The FSA has threatened to attack targets in Lebanon if Hezbollah does not withdraw its fighters

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