The President of the Council of Ministers Saad Hariri held talks today at the Grand Serail with the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in the presence of Minister Ghattas Khoury, Hariri's chief of staff Nader Hariri and the accompanying US delegation.

Following their discussions that lasted one hour and a half, Hariri and Tillerson held a joint press conference at the Serail, during which Hariri said: "I welcome Secretary Tillerson to Lebanon and thank him for the excellent discussion we had earlier. His visit is a clear testimony of the United State's commitment to Lebanon's political and economic stability and the security of my country.

By far the largest donor to the Lebanese Armed Forces, the United States of America is a key strategic partner in countering and fighting terrorism of all kinds. I thank secretary Tillerson for his country's support and faith in our security institutions. The US has demonstrated that investing in Lebanon yields quick and fruitful results.

This support is directly aligned with my priority to build our state institutions. It is the only way to guarantee our stability and our democracy. Our democracy which will be reaffirmed in free and fair elections, 12 weeks from today.

As I pointed to Secretary Tillerson, the commitment by all in Lebanon to the policy of disassociation is today a collective responsibility. It is closely monitored by all State institutions to ensure it is executed to Lebanon's national interest in keeping the best relations with Arab countries and the International Community at large.

We discussed the ongoing preparations for the Rome 2, CEDRE and Brussels 2 conferences, and we agreed that a successful outcome of all these meetings would safeguard Lebanon's social, economic and financial stability.

I stressed to secretary Tillerson Lebanon's right to explore, exploit and develop our natural resources in our territorial waters.

We both agreed that the Lebanese banking sector remains the cornerstone of our economy. And I reassured Secretary Tillerson that the sector is solid and sound, well supervised, and fully compliant with international laws and regulations.

Lebanon is committed to Security Council Resolutions 1701 and 2373. We want to move to a state of permanent cease fire but Israel's daily violations of our sovereignty hinder that process, as does Israel's escalating rhetoric. This needs to stop. Lebanon's southern border is the calmest border in the Middle East and I asked Secretary Tillerson to help keep it that way.

I thanked him for his country's continuous support to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon which we are confident will put an end to impunity for the perpetrators of political assassination in our country.

Once again, Mr Secretary, welcome to Lebanon and thank you."

Tillerson, for his part, said: "Thank you as well so much Prime Minister Hariri for the warm welcome to Beirut. I was told by my staff when I arrived that it has been a little more than four years since the last visit of a Secretary state, so I can't be more pleased to be here to represent the United States. This trip is really an important opportunity to reaffirm that there are very strong bonds between our two countries but also to have very important exchanges about what we can do together to address the many critical challenges that this region is confronted with.

In addition to the Prime Minister, I also had the privilege to meet with President Aoun, foreign minister Basil and speaker Berri. In all these meetings I repeated the United States message that we stand firmly with the Lebanese people and Lebanon's legitimate state institutions as Lebanon faces formidable challenges as well as threats in the region. From foreign conflicts and efforts to drag Lebanon into such conflicts, to terrorism and violent extremism, to economic strains, Lebanon has been under enormous pressure.

We are engaging with the governments of both Lebanon and Israel to ensure Lebanon's southern border remains calm and we remain committed to helping Lebanon and the Lebanese people prosper through the development of their natural resources in agreement with all their neighbors.

If an agreement can be reached, it truly has the ability to help Lebanon and the neighboring countries prosper now and in the years to come.

Despite all of these challenges, it's clearly a testament to the resilience of the Lebanese people and Lebanese communities around the world and Lebanon's perseverance.

We are grateful to our close partnership with Lebanon's security services, particularly the Lebanese armed forces and the internal security forces as they fight on the front lines against ISIS, Daesh and AlQaeda and they stand ready to safeguard Lebanese stability.

We built a strong relationship with these state institutions and remain committed to supporting them in advancing our common goals. We also command the extraordinary generosity of the Lebanese communities which are hosting over 1 million Syrian refugees.

The United States provided nearly 1.6 billion dollars in humanitarian assistance that delivers basic services to refugees and the open hearted communities here in Lebanon who welcome them.

The United States stands with the Lebanese people as you face these challenges and we will remain strongly committed to Lebanon's security, stability, independence and sovereignty.

But it's impossible to talk about stability, sovereignty and security in Lebanon without addressing Hezbollah. The Unites States has considered Hezbollah a terrorist organization for more than two decades now. We neither see nor do we accept any distinction between its political and its military arms.

It is unacceptable for a militia like Hezbollah to operate outside the authority of the Lebanese government, the only legitimate defender of the Lebanese state is the Lebanese armed forces.

Hezbollah is not just a concern for the United States, the people of Lebanon should also be concerned about how Hezbollah's actions and its growing arsenal bring unwanted and unhelpful scrutiny on Lebanon.

Hezbollah's entanglement in regional conflicts threatens the security of Lebanon and has destabilizing effects in the region. The presence in Syria has perpetuated the bloodshed, increased the displacement of innocent people and propped up the barbaric Assad regime.

Their presence in Iraq and Yemen has also fueled violence and the consequences of their involvement in these far-off conflicts, which have nothing to do with Lebanon, are felt back here at home. That's why we are urging all Lebanese leaders during my visit to uphold the government of Lebanon's commitment to disassociating itself from foreign conflicts. The International community expects all parties in Lebanon to fulfill this commitment including Hezbollah, which should cease its activities abroad in order to help reduce tensions in the region. The United States looks forward to building on these strong ties and working together to ensure a bright future for the Lebanese people. Thank you again Prime Minister for the luncheon today and very important discussion and exchanges that we had."

Question: If president Trump pulls out of the nuclear deal by the May deadline as he has said, critics say it will make it even easier for Iran to spread its influence in places like Lebanon and could alienate Europeans allies whom you need in this region to counter that threat. What happens if the US pulls out?

To both of you, how serious is the oil and gas maritime dispute with Israel? Secretary Tillerson, did you ask the Lebanese to yield part of the disputed water to Israel in order to settle this dispute?

Tillerson: With respect to JCPOA, the Iran nuclear agreement, as the president has indicated, he would like to see the defects in that agreement addressed, along with Iran's other malign activities in the region. As such we have been engaged with our Europeans partners, the other signatories to the JCPOA, for some time now, to chart a way forward to address these particular flaws. We had very fruitful meetings with the Europeans. We are not through with that work yet and so I don't want to conclude or suggest any conclusion to a decision to exit the agreement. It is important that these areas be addressed, in particular the intercontinental ballistic missile program that Iran continues to carry out, as well as their export of weapons and foreign fighters that is destabilizing others countries in the region.

In terms of the off shore agreement, we had very good discussions in all of our meetings today, this is an extremely important issue to Lebanon, it is important to Israel as well to come to some agreement so that private companies can go to work offshore and determine what in fact might be available in terms of natural resource development and how to get started in moving forward.

We had a good exchange over our lunch meeting thinking about creative ideas on how to wreck the stalemate and move forward, so we will continue to be very engaged with both parties. We have asked no one to give up anything, we are rather looking for a solution .

Hariri: For us, like Secretary Tillerson says, what is ours is ours and what is Israel's is Israel's. We are trying to find solutions that will be fair to us and fair to everyone. We had good discussions on this and there are some new ideas and we are going to exploit those ideas to finally exploit oil and gaz.

Question: Mr. Secretary, among the reasons for your visit, if not one of the main reasons, is to discuss the dispute over bloc 9 and the controversial wall being built along Lebanon's southern border as we speak, what guarantees can be given to Lebanon that Israel will respect any solution that may come out of this visit?

Tillerson: Well the US is not in a position to guarantee anything for another sovereign country, what we are here to do though is to be constructive in finding solutions to a final border agreement along the blue line. There are very constructive discussions going on, we urged the Israelis to also be constructive in these discussions and let's get the border agreed first and then people can think about if they need a security wall or not at that point. But we are hopeful that the current talks around establishing an agreed upon border will yield a final resolution. We think it would be very important and useful to lower tensions along the border if the two sides could agree to that.

Question: Did you discuss the escalation that happened last week between Iran and Israel in Syria? And are there guarantees, in case it happened again, that it would not affect Lebanon?

Hariri: For us, any escalation and tension in the region does not benefit the region. We are with all types of calm, because the region doesn't need additional tensions or wars. We believe that the interest of the region is to have calm, dialogue, and solutions because the region needs this kind of policy. We have been suffering in Lebanon for 7 years and Lebanon must not be a victim of any threats or problems around it. For us, dialogue and solving problems among each other is the best way to solve these issues and we hope that Lebanon will be part of this dialogue.

Question: Secretary Tillerson, as you are about to travel, the situation between the US and Turkey over Syria looks to be a stalemate from every angle. What you would say is your level of worry that Turkey will force some kind of show down over Manbij? What would a compromise even begin to look like? When will the US start to taking heavy arms back from the YPG? How do you explain that the US can't control its own very unique problem of children getting shot in schools and other mass shootings?

And Mr prime minister, you are dealing with more than a million refugees, what do you think of this shift in the US policy?

Tillerson: First I want to comment on the horrific school shootings in Florida and I'm not going to answer your question on the heels of what many people are dealing with. We have mourning parents and people in really difficult circumstances dealing with that, so I think we need just to keep them in our thoughts and prayers at this time and we will have conversations about other things later.

With respect to the meeting upcoming in Turkey, Turkey is an important Nato ally of ours, they are still an important partner of ours in the fight to defeat Isis. They performed admirably and in all ways been supportive. There are so many aspects of the US- Turkey relationship which are very important and very positive and we intend to build on the areas that we do share, common interests and concerns. Our end point objectives are alike, there is no gap between them. We have some differences about tactically how to achieve the objectives. But our objectives are to defeat ISIS, to defeat terrorism, to reduce violence and protect people and support a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Syria that would bring great benefits not only for Syria but also for Lebanon and other neighboring countries. We have never given heavy weapons to the YPG so there is nothing to take back.

Hariri: I think the US have been extremely generous with humanitarian aid in the region. We would like to see more humanitarian aid because we are doing a huge public service for the international community when it comes to the refugees. We have more than a million, almost 1.5 million refugees. I think that the international community, not only the United States, needs to help Lebanon. Combined efforts on this issue can give us the right amount of money. We talked with secretary Tillerson about the reduction of donations, whether to UNRWA or humanitarian aid in other places. He explained it very well and we will work together to see how we can subsidize this kind of humanitarian aid from other countries.

Source: National News Agency

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