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Lebanon asks Saudi Arabia for explanation on premier’s absence

BEIRUT: A woman and her daughter pass by a poster of outgoing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri yesterday. – AP

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s president urged Saudi Arabia yesterday to explain why Saad Hariri had not returned to Beirut since his surprise resignation as prime minister a week ago. Hariri announced on Nov 4 in a televised statement from Riyadh that he would be stepping down from the post, sending shockwaves through Lebanese politics. The premier has yet to return to Lebanon and rumors have swirled that he is being held in Saudi Arabia against his will.


President Michel Aoun yesterday called on the kingdom “that is linked to us through deep brotherly and friendly relations to clarify the reasons that have prevented the return of PM Hariri to Lebanon to be among his people and supporters”. “The obscurity surrounding the condition of PM Saad Hariri since his resignation a week ago means that all positions and actions declared by him or attributed to him do not reflect the truth,” Aoun added. “They are instead a result of the ambiguous and obscure conditions (under which) PM Hariri is living in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”


Aoun yesterday spoke by phone to French President Emmanuel Macron on the “latest developments” around Hariri’s resignation, Lebanon’s presidency said in a statement. Aoun has yet to formally accept Hariri’s resignation and has criticized the circumstances surrounding it as “unacceptable”.


Saudi Minister for Gulf Affairs Thamer Al-Sabhan warned earlier this month that his government would deal with Lebanon as a hostile state as long as Hezbollah was in the Lebanese government. The Lebanese unity government that Hariri formed a year ago includes Hezbollah members – the result of a tacit Saudi-Iranian agreement to sideline Lebanon from the other proxy wars in the region. Sabhan blasted in a tweet late yesterday as laughable those expressing support and “love” for Hariri despite their previous opposition to him. He added that those who “sold out” Lebanon would soon be exposed.


In his shock announcement, Hariri had accused Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of taking over his country and destabilizing the broader region, saying he feared for his life. His statement prompted fears that Lebanon – dominated by rival camps led by Hariri and Hezbollah – would be caught up in spiralling tensions between Riyadh and Tehran.


Hariri’s weeklong absence from Lebanon has sparked rumors that the former prime minister – who also holds Saudi nationality – is under de facto house arrest in the kingdom.  “The head of the Lebanese government is detained in Saudi Arabia, he is banned from returning to Lebanon until now,” Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised address Friday. Members of Hariri’s own Al-Moustaqbal (Future) party said they had no information on his fate. And Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil announced on Friday that he was launching a “diplomatic campaign to bring back the head of our government of his own free will”.


A Lebanese official who declined to be named said Aoun, who has been convening high-level meetings with politicians and diplomats, told ambassadors on Friday that Hariri was “kidnapped” and should benefit from immunity as prime minister. “Lebanon does not accept its prime minister being in a situation at odds with international treaties,” Aoun said in the statement. He said a marathon planned in Beirut today in which tens of thousands will participate should be “a national sports demonstration for solidarity with prime minister Hariri and his return to his country”. Last year Hariri took part in the marathon, wearing the number 3.


Even world powers have appealed for calm and freedom of movement for Hariri. The United States said yesterday it “rejects any efforts by militias within Lebanon or by any foreign forces to threaten Lebanon’s stability … or use Lebanon as a base from which to threaten others in the region.” The White House called Hariri “a trusted partner” and referred to him as prime minister.


US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Friday described Hariri as “a strong partner” and warned against “any party, within or outside Lebanon, using Lebanon as a venue for proxy conflicts or in any manner contributing to instability in that country”.


On Friday, a spokesman for France’s foreign ministry said: “We wish Mr Saad Hariri to have all his freedom of movement and to be fully able to play the essential role that is his in Lebanon.” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman claimed Saudi Arabia is aiming to create unrest in Lebanon after doing so in the Gulf region and Yemen. Bahram Qasemi said in comments carried by state news agency IRNA that the kingdom is trying to destabilize the region. – Agencies


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