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White House holding up Lebanon aid, official confirms

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Washington (AFP)

The White House is holding up security assistance to Lebanon valued at more than $100 million, leaving lawmakers and policymakers in the dark, a senior State Department official publicly confirmed.

David Hale, the top career diplomat at the State Department, acknowledged the freeze as he spoke under oath to lawmakers in the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump.

Asked about the controversial delay in military assistance to Ukraine, Hale said that it was not an isolated case and pointed to Lebanon.

"There was information that came to me starting in late June that a hold had been placed on both Ukraine assistance and Lebanon military assistance without any explanation," said Hale, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, according to a transcript released by lawmakers late Monday.

"It's still not been released," he said in the November 6 deposition when asked about the status of aid to Lebanon.

Asked why the White House was not disbursing money approved by Congress, Hale said there was apparently "a dispute over the efficacy of the assistance," but his full answer was redacted.

The Trump administration, which has not explained its decision, has been pressing for the isolation of Hezbollah, the militant Shiite movement allied with Iran that has seats in the government.

The aid freeze came before the outbreak of massive protests in Lebanon against economic hardship and corruption, which triggered the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Two senior Democrats, in a recent letter to the White House, said that the "indefinite and unexplained hold" affected $105 million in aid to Lebanon including military vehicles, weapons and ammunition.

Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Ted Deutch, head of its Middle East subcommittee, wrote that Lebanon "continues to face imminent threats to its security forces from a resurgent ISIS, Al-Qaeda and its affiliates as well as an increasingly strong Hezbollah."

"A more capable (Lebanese Armed Forces) is clearly in the interests of the United States and Lebanon," they wrote.

Hale said the top State Department and Pentagon officials handling the Middle East wondered if aid freezes by the White House's Office of Management and Budget had become "a new normal."

There was no immediate allegation that the Trump administration sought personal gain from blocking the aid to Lebanon.

In the case of Ukraine, Trump is facing accusations over charges that he withheld assistance needed to fight Russian-backed separatists as he pressed Ukraine to dig up dirt on domestic rival Joe Biden. Trump denies wrongdoing.

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