U.S. will ensure Lebanon's sovereignty, Kerry says

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Secretary of State John Kerry vowed Thursday the United States was committed to ensuring Lebanon’s security in a call with President Michel Sleiman after a major gun battle.

Lebanese soldiers battled supporters of a radical cleric in Abra near Sidon last weekend in the worst clashes to hit the country since the start of the conflict in neighboring Syria, which has inflamed sectarian tensions.

Kerry “stressed that the United States is fully committed to supporting the president's efforts to safeguard Lebanon's security and sovereignty,” the State Department said in a statement.

The top U.S. diplomat also voiced his condolences to the families of the 17 soldiers killed in the firefight and condemned the attack.

The two men “discussed the recent increase in cross-border incidents with Syria and agreed that it is imperative that all parties in the region refrain from any actions that would draw Lebanon into the conflict in Syria.”

Washington was committed to “providing continued assistance” to the Lebanese Armed Forces, the statement added.

Lebanese security forces have launched a manhunt for Sunni cleric Ahmad al-Assir on the run after the clashes began late Sunday when his supporters opened fire on an army checkpoint.

Kerry also pledged the U.S. “would take all necessary steps to encourage the international community to continue to strongly promote and protect Lebanon's sovereignty, independence, and security,” the statement said.

Washington has been increasingly concerned that the worsening conflict in Syria risks dragging its neighbors into the fighting.

Lebanon is meanwhile hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled the fighting, and Kerry thanked Sleiman for “the Lebanese people's generosity.”

Kerry is currently in Jordan on a seven-nation tour that has largely focused on the Syrian conflict and efforts to kick start the Middle East peace talks.

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