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U.S. Secretary Kerry in Lebanon to pledge refugee aid

Source: Reuters - Wed, 4 Jun 2014 13:07 GMT
Author: Reuters
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Syrian girls attend a class at a refugee camp school in the town of Anjar in Lebanon's Bekaa valley May 19, 2014. REUTERS/Caren Firouz
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By Lesley Wroughton

BEIRUT, June 4 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Lebanon on Wednesday, where he will pledge more aid to help Syria's neighbours deal with an influx of refugees and press Lebanese parliamentarians to swiftly choose a new president.

Lebanon has been unable to agree on a consensus candidate for president, creating a political vacuum at a time when the country is struggling to contain domestic sectarian violence while also grappling with a flood of Syrian refugees and declining economic growth.

"It is an important period now to show support for the Lebanese government," a senior State Department official told reporters.

The State Department said Kerry will announce more than $290 million in additional aid for U.N. agencies and non-governmental organizations working with the nearly 3 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

Some $51 million of the funds, the largest chunk of the aid, will go to helping Lebanon, which now hosts the highest concentration of refugees as a percentage of population in the world.

The influx has burdened public services and been a drag on the economy. Unlike some of Syria's other neighbours, Lebanon does not have formal refugee camps, leaving many families to find refuge within host communities.

More than $35 million of the additional funds will go to helping refugees in Jordan, $15 million to Turkey and the same amount to Iraq, while $4.5 million will support Egypt, the State Department said.

"LEBANON NEEDS PRESIDENT"

Lebanon has been without a president since May 25 when Michel Suleiman's six-year term expired. Attempts by politicians to pick a successor have foundered on longstanding rifts exacerbated by tensions over the Syrian war.

The presidency, allocated to the Maronite Christian community under Lebanon's sectarian division of power, is one of the three main political offices alongside the prime minister - a Sunni Muslim, and the parliamentary speaker - a Shi'ite.

The war in Syria has split Lebanon's Christians just as it has divided Muslims. Shi'ites mostly support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Sunnis mainly back the rebels.

Regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran, whose endorsement is crucial to any political deal in Lebanon, are also in opposing camps over Syria.

The senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Kerry will press Lebanese politicians to elect a president as soon as possible.

"You need a fully empowered president to do everything that Lebanon needs to govern its territory and also to get the assistance from the international community that it really needs," the official said.

"While there is not a president, he wants to go in and express the desire to get that president elected," the official added.

The power of the presidency, once the leading political office in Lebanon, was eroded under the accord which ended Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, handing greater influence to the government and prime minister.

Kerry will also renew a commitment by the United States to develop the capabilities of the Lebanese army to secure its borders and restore calm in parts of the country.

Syria's civil war has added to disputes within Lebanon, especially over the Shi'ite movement Hezbollah's support for Assad, a fellow ally of Shi'ite Iran. Some Lebanese Sunnis have meanwhile joined Syria's rebels.

During the visit Kerry will also discuss plans by the United States to increase its support for moderate Syrian rebels.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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