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French FM warns Beirut Israel could wage war — Lebanon minister

By AFP - Feb 07,2024 - Last updated at Feb 07,2024

French Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Sejourne (left) meets with Lebanon's Prime Minister Najib Mikati in Beirut on Tuesday (AFP photo)

BEIRUT — France's top diplomat warned officials during a Beirut visit on Tuesday that Israel is threatening to wage war on its northern neighbour to return citizens displaced by cross-border fire, Lebanon's foreign minister said.

Hamas ally Hizbollah and Israel have been exchanging daily fire for nearly four months in the wake of the Gaza war, forcing tens of thousands of people out of their homes on both sides of the border.

French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne "warned us that the Israelis might launch a war, which they say would be to return" displaced citizens to their homes, Abdallah Bou Habib told reporters after meeting his French counterpart.

"We told the French that we do not want a war" with Israel, Bou Habib said, adding that Beirut sought "a border deal with them" facilitated by the United Nations, France and the United States.

Sejourne met caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, army chief Joseph Aoun and parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a Hizbollah ally, as part of his first regional tour since taking office.

In Jerusalem on Monday, Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz told Sejourne that "time is running out" to reach a diplomatic solution in south Lebanon.

Sejourne is the latest in a succession of Western ministers to visit Beirut amid concerns the Gaza war could spark a wider conflict involving Iranian allies around the Middle East.

A major focus of recent diplomatic efforts has been to reinforce a UN Security Council resolution that ended a 2006 war between Israel and Hizbollah.

Resolution 1701 called for all armed personnel to pull back north of the Litani River, some 30 kilometres from the border with Israel, except for Lebanese state security forces and UN peacekeepers.

While Hizbollah has not had a visible military presence in the border area since 2006, the group still holds sway over large parts of the south, where it has built tunnels, hideouts and launched attacks into Israel.

Asked about Lebanon’s demands, Bou Habib said: “Help us recruit about 6,000 to 7,000” soldiers “so they can be deployed in the south”, denying that the move aimed to comply with Israeli calls for Hizbollah’s withdrawal from the border region.

“We really want total peace and for Israel to completely withdraw from all Lebanese land,” he added, in reference to disputed border areas.

Bou Habib is set to meet his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry on Wednesday.

At least 226 people have been killed in Lebanon, mostly Hizbollah fighters but also at least 26 civilians, according to an AFP tally.

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