BEIRUT (Reuters) - The United States has begun delivering nearly $20 million of arms including assault rifles, anti-tank missiles and mortars to bolster Lebanon's army after Islamist insurgents seized a border town for several days this month, U.S. officials said on Friday.
Lebanon, a country of about 4 million which borders Israel, has long been buffeted by the rivalries of regional and international powers including Iran and Saudi Arabia, who back its opposing politicians largely along sectarian lines.
But the threat of expansion by militants who want to build a "caliphate" stretching from Iraq to the Mediterranean has created an unusual common front among Lebanon's otherwise normally fractious political forces against radical Islamists.
In a statement, the U.S. Embassy said the arms shipments started on Thursday and so far had included 480 anti-tank guided missiles, more than 1,500 M16-A4 rifles, and "many mortars".
It said that more mortars, grenade launchers, machineguns and anti-tank weapons would arrive "soon" and that further ammunition and heavy weaponry would follow in the coming weeks.
Embassy officials told Reuters the cost of items delivered on Thursday was over $8 million, the total of items delivered Friday was $793,000 and the cost of deliveries set for early September was estimated at over $11 million.
The press statement said the weaponry and ordnance was "paid for by the American people".
Early this month militant Islamists entered Lebanon from Syria and seized the town of Arsal along the mountainous border in the most serious incursion by the rebels into Lebanon since Syria's three-year-old war began.
The gunmen - some of them from al Qaeda's Syria branch, the Nusra Front, as well as Islamic State, an al Qaeda splinter group that has seized territory in Iraq and Syria - withdrew after five days of fighting.
Quoting the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, David Hale, the embassy statement said the arms deliveries came after he met with Lebanon's army chief Jean Kahwaji.
"We moved to supply the army with the weapons and the ammunition it asked for and that it needs to secure Lebanon’s borders and defeat these extremist groups that threaten Lebanon’s security," the statement said.
(Reporting by Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by Mark Heinrich)