US Ambassador Vincent Battle declined to confirm Tuesday whether Washington believes reports that Al-Qaeda members have relocated to Lebanon, affirming instead that America looked favorably on Beirut’s attempts at stepping up security and launching economic reform.
During a rare round-table discussion with members of selected media, Battle addressed various locally oriented issues that have “coincidentally” emerged in recent weeks.
The session came as David Satterfield, the United States’ deputy undersecretary of state for Near East affairs, arrived in Lebanon for a busy two-day stay that will see him meet with politicians and representatives of the business community.
Satterfield, who arrived from Damascus, is expected to relay Washington’s view on a variety of Lebanese and regional issues during his visit, which comes as part of a tour that began in France.
During his round-table session, Battle discussed the granting of visas to Lebanese, resettlement of non-Lebanese refugees living in Lebanon, the Mazen Najjar deportation controversy, US assistance for Lebanon, as well as recent tension on the Lebanese-Israeli border and Lebanon’s economy.
Battle disclosed that Lebanon would soon be receiving assistance in the form of surplus military equipment from Saudi Arabia that was originally provided by the United States.
The 100-plus vehicles, mainly jeeps and trucks, were originally valued at some $800,000, Battle said.
He also indicated that Washington was keen to see “remaining obstacles” to Lebanese transport and civil aviation removed, focusing on two draft laws that are nearly ready for parliamentary examination one deals with the civil aviation sector in general and the other specifically addresses security in the civil aviation field.
Their endorsement by the legislature could prompt a second postwar visit by America’s Federal Aviation Association and could eventually do away with US restrictions on direct cargo shipments and express courier services to America.
As for the recent Israeli press report alleging that Al-Qaeda members had slipped into the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp, Battle said merely that he had “seen the report.”
Asked whether he could confirm the story, Battle said Washington had noticed the “active response by the Lebanese authorities against lawlessness” in places like Ain al-Hilweh.
The camp experienced several tense moments this summer as tensions between Islamist and secular factions erupted, against the backdrop of the camp’s relationship with the Lebanese authorities.
The ambassador said he hoped Beirut’s “resolve” would extend to dealing with Al-Qaeda, “if there is a link.”
As for a report that drug money from the United States was being funneled to groups like Hizbullah and other organizations that Washington
considers involved in “terrorism,” Battle said no new groups or accounts had been added
to Washington’s lists of terrorism sponsors.
He said the report did reflect the “increased scrutiny” being practiced by American judicial and security authorities.
Asked to comment on Hizbullah’s latest attack in the Shebaa Farms on Thursday, which killed one Israeli soldier and wounded two others, Battle said Washington sought to “ensure maximum restraint” on the border.
Asked whether the attack was considered an act of terrorism, the ambassador said that it did “not fall within the rubric” of terrorism, since Hizbullah has gone after “combatant targets” and not civilians.
Battle said that while seeking calm on the border, the United States had also raised the issue of Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace with the Jewish state.
He was firm regarding another topic of controversy, namely the Syria Accountability Act, which is scheduled for congressional debate next week.
The legislation seeks to punish Syria for illegal purchases of Iraqi oil, backing “terrorist” groups such as Hizbullah and occupying Lebanon.
“The administration opposes” the legislation, he said, “and we are working with Congress to make our position clear.”
Asked about the upcoming Paris II donors’ conference for Lebanon, Battle praised the government’s efforts to address economic problems, calling the Cabinet’s 2003 draft budget “very ambitious,” as it seeks to reduce the deficit from 41 to 24 percent of spending.
Battle said the United States was consulting with the planners of the conference, recently confirmed by French President Jacques Chirac, about the “timing and agenda.”
Asked whether Washington supported the conference, Battle said that “a donors’ conference makes good sense, but in the context of the government’s economic reform program.”
Addressing US economic assistance for Lebanon, Battle said the official American request involved maintaining the current annual level of approximately $35 million.
But a “valuable” aid program that has received considerable amounts of press importing American dairy cows to boost the dairy industry was on the verge of ending.
In recent years, Lebanon has received 5,700 cows for farmers, who are supposed to pay off low-interest loans to finance the purchases.
Battle said the agreement ends on Sept. 30, with the end of the US fiscal year, and Lebanon’s Finance Ministry is unwilling to approve the letter of credit to let it continue.
“We understand there’s a disagreement between the Finance Ministry and the Agriculture Ministry,” he said, adding that the Agriculture Ministry’s failure to collect some of the loans was responsible for the delay.
Battle said that despite the problems with “transparency” by Lebanese officials, the program was an unqualified success, citing statistics that say Lebanon now imports 60 percent of its milk needs, down from 80 percent before the program began.
Battle also expressed concern about a labor dispute at the American University of Beirut, whose firing of two union officials prompted the Labor Ministry to suspend work permits for non-Lebanese at the institution.
Battle said he had no opinion on the original labor dispute, but objected to linking the issue of work permits to the problem.
As for the case of Najjar, the Palestinian professor whom the US deported after years of incarceration without a trial, Battle said the Lebanese government had not summoned him for any explanation over the affair.