It was also in Lebanon that Israeli-backed militia committed the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps massacre that killed hundreds of civilians.

Geography

Lebanon is a Middle Eastern country, bordering the Mediterranean Sea between Palestine and Syria with a total land area of 10,230sq km.

Historical background

Lebanon is the historic home of the Phoenicians, where the maritime culture of Semitic traders prospered for more than 2000 years (c 2700-450BCE). The fall of the Ottoman empire after World War I led the League of Nations to mandate Lebanon to France.

Modern political history

Modern Lebanon's constitution, drawn up in 1926, specified a balance of political power between the various religious groups. The country gained independence in 1943, and French troops withdrew in 1946. Ever since, Lebanon has been marked by periods of political turmoil, but enjoyed a period of relative calm and Beirut-focused tourism and banking sector-driven prosperity during the 1960s.

In the early 1970s, Muslim and Christian differences grew more intense and difficulties arose over the presence of Palestinian refugees, most of whom arrived after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the hostilities of Black September in 1970 in Jordan.

Full-scale civil war broke out in April 1975. It lasted till early 1990 following the signing of the Taif Agreement in 1989, which was marked as the beginning of the end of the war.

The two Beirut-area refugee camps Sabra and Shatila were the scene of an infamous massacre carried out by Lebanese right-wing Christian Phalange militia operating under Israel's control in 1982.

An Israeli investigative commission eventually found Ariel Sharon, who was Israel's defence minister at the time, "personally responsible" for the slaughter.

During the civil war, regional powers - particularly Israel, Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organisation - used the country as a battlefield for their own conflicts. Israeli troops invaded in 1982 before pulling back to a self-declared "security zone" in 1985, from which they withdrew in May 2000.

Syria is currently the major power in the country, following Israel's withdrawal from the so-called security zone.

Official name: Lebanese Republic
Capital: Beirut
Form of government: Republic
Gained independence: 22 November 1943 and from France 1946

Economy

Lebanon has a free-market economy and a strong commercial tradition. However, the investment climate suffers from corruption.

Currency: Lebanese pound (LBP) 1 USD = (app.) 148 LBP
Natural resources: Limestone, iron-ore, salt, water
Major industries: Banking, food-processing, jewellery, cement, textiles, mineral and chemical products
GDP: $19.3bn (2002 est)
GDP annual growth rate: 1% (2002 est)
Per capita GDP: $5400 (2002 est)
Imports: 40.9% of GDP (2002 est)
Exports: 13.9% of GDP (2002 est)

Military

Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF; includes army, navy, and air force)

Military budget: $536 million (2002 est)
Army size: 71,830 active troops

Culture

Population: 3,653,000 (2003 est)
Languages: Arabic (official), French, English, Armenian
Religions: Islam, Christianity, Druze
Literacy rate: 87.4%
Important media: An-Nahar newspaper, Al-Safir newspaper, Daily Star English newspaper, L'Orient-Le Jour French newspaper, Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) TV, Al-Manar TV (private), Future TV (private)

Sources: World Bank, countryreports.org, MSN Encarta, politinfo.com, The Almanac