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Prime Minister Saad Hariri who is on a private visit to France defended the presence of UNIFIL troops in South Lebanon on Monday and affirmed the peacekeeping force’s duty to defend the country, according to a statement from his office.

Hariri, spoke to reporters in Paris after holding talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak who is also visiting France.

The two men discussed the latest developments in the region and in Lebanon, the statement said.

Hariri briefed Mubarak on the recent protests by residents in South Lebanon against UNIFIL.

“We hope that the situation in Lebanon will remain calm because provocations are not in anyone’s interest,” Hariri said.

“The reason for the presence of UNIFIL in Lebanon is to defend the country only,” he added.

His comment followed the clash last Saturday between French UNIFIL troops and residents of the southern towns of Toulin and Qebrikha which resulted in the destruction of a civilian vehicle, the incapacitation of two French vehicles, and the light injury of one French soldier and Lebanese citizen Ali Salman.

UNIFIL military spokesman Colonel Narish Bhatt said that on Saturday morning, a UNIFIL patrol, comprised of an armored military vehicle and another light one, was intercepted by a number of civilians some 50 meters north of Qebrikha where they pelted it with rocks and eggs.

He said in a statement that the patrol damaged a motorcycle as it exited the scene, upon which some 50 individuals surrounded the vehicles, slashed their tires, and attempted to size the units’ weapons, which prompted the soldiers to fire shots into the air.

The protests started on June 29 during a maximum deployment exercise by UNIFIL.

On Sunday UNIFIL Commander Major General Alberto Asarta Cuevas was reported as saying: “The Lebanese authorities are obligated to provide UNIFIL with security and freedom of mobility within their areas of operation.”

Link to Iran sanctions

An-Nahar newspaper quoted an anonymous political source on Sunday as saying that the protests against UNIFIL in South Lebanon are linked to recent events in international diplomacy. The source particularly identified last month’s UN Security Council resolution that imposed new sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program as a trigger.

South Lebanon is a stronghold of the Iranian backed Hezbollah militants . One Arab observer was quoted as saying: ” Hezbollah is trying use the people in the south as barricades to deter the international sanctions on Iran.”

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