Jacques Chirac announced on Thursday at a conference in Paris that pledges of financial support from international donors to help Lebanon rebuild in the wake of the war last summer with Israel had totalled $7.6bn.

Mr Chirac had opened the conference with an appeal to the more than 30 countries and international organisations attending the event to help Lebanon rebuild itself.

Describing Lebanon as a country “obstinately seeking rebirth”, he said the country needed the support of the international community more than ever, and praised the economic reform programme drawn up by the pro-western government of Fouad Siniora, prime minister.

The French president and other speakers linked long term international aid to implementation of the reforms. But a significant sum was needed urgently and immediately, he said.

Lebanese officials declared themselves pleased as commitments of support from the US, Europe, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, the International Monetary Fund and the European Investment Bank pushed the figure well over the minimum of $3bn-$4bn that economists had said would signal a successful outcome.

The conference also aimed to ease the country’s crippling debt burden of about $40.5bn, which represents about 180 per cent of GDP. Lebanon’s debt - which dates mainly from the reconstruction of the country that followed the 1975-1990 civil war - is a particularly urgent problem. Of the total of some $40.5bn, $24.8bn will mature before 2010.

In his address to the conference, Mr Siniora lashed out at Israel for its “brutal and unprovoked” onslaught which was launched against Hizbollah in July and August after the militant Islamist movement kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed three others in a raid. More than 1,000 people died in Lebanon during the conflict, mostly civilians, as well as 140 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

Since the war, the Hizbollah-led opposition, seeking a greater role in government, has held a series of protests, which flared into widespread rioting on Tuesday in the run-up to the Paris conference.

Mr Chirac emphasised on Thursday the need for all the factions to “unite and overcome these difficulties”. But there was little sign of this on Thursday as more clashes erupted at Beirut university between opposition supporters and students loyal to the government. At least one opposition student was reported to have been shot dead and 25 injured in the clashes.

Major pledges at the beginning of the conference came from Saudi Arabia, which allocated another $1bn dollars in aid, on top of substantial earlier commitments. The IMF and the EIB pledged more that $2bn.

The European Union had on Wednesday already committed an extra €400m and France had announced €500m in soft loans. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice confirmed the US pledge that had been announced a day earlier of $770m in new aid.

Other Arab countries, including Kuwait, Qatar and other Gulf States pitched in with hundreds of billions of dollars each. It was not in every case immediately clear how much was intended as loans and how much came in grants. In some cases countries announced a total amount of aid that included earlier pledges made at a conference in Stockholm immediately after the war last year.

Margaret Becket, UK foreign secretary, announced $115m in aid to Lebanon and $48m for the United Nations Works and Relief Agency that aids Palestinian refugees, of whom more than 200,000 live in Lebanon.

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