BEIRUT — Dozens of citizens of Gulf Arab countries began leaving Lebanon on Friday after their governments ordered them to leave the Mediterranean country, as the president called for the return of Lebanon’s prime minister who mysteriously resigned from the Saudi capital last week.
The manner in which Saad Hariri resigned “was unacceptable,” a Lebanese official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
This was conveyed by Lebanese President Michel Aoun to the Saudi charge d’affaires in Lebanon, Walid al-Bukhari, at the presidential palace on Friday, the official said.
Later Friday, the leader of the Hezbollah terror group said in a televised speech that Hariri is currently detained in Saudi Arabia and that his “forced” resignation is unconstitutional because it was done “under duress.”
Nasrallah said he was certain that Saad Hariri, who resigned last week from Saudi Arabia, was forced to so as part of the kingdom’s policy of meddling in Lebanon’s affairs. He said Hariri is being prevented by Saudi officials from returning to Lebanon, adding that his detention should not be accepted.
Hariri shocked his country last Saturday when he announced in a televised statement from Saudi Arabia that he was resigning. The unexpected move has thrown the tiny nation in turmoil and led to rumors that he is being held in Saudi Arabia against his will.
President Aoun has refused to accept Hariri’s resignation before he returns to the country and explains the circumstances surrounding his decision to step down, which effectively shattered a year-old coalition government in Lebanon. Aoun met with foreign ambassadors, including al-Bukhari, on Friday to discuss the resignation and his next moves.
Meanwhile, a French official in President Emmanuel Macron’s office said Hariri has told foreign ambassadors that he is not a prisoner in Saudi Arabia, where he has been since the unusual resignation.
The French and US ambassadors in Saudi Arabia met with Hariri, and Hariri “says he is not a prisoner, the (Saudi crown) prince says he is not a prisoner,” said the official.
Macron paid a surprise visit to Saudi Arabia on Thursday night and met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to discuss the rising tensions between the kingdom and Lebanon, a former French protectorate.
The official said Hariri did not ask to see Macron during the visit and that French officials “don’t have any specific signs” that the Lebanese prime minister’s life is in danger. The official was not authorized to be publicly named according to presidential policy.
Also Friday, France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Europe-1 radio that “to our knowledge,” Hariri is not being held against his will. Le Drian added that France thinks “he is free in his movements, and it is up to him to make his choices.”
Hariri, who cited Iran’s and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah’s meddling in the region in his resignation speech, has not returned to Lebanon or made contact with Lebanese officials since then.
Saudi Arabia sees Hezbollah as an extension of Iran amid a spiraling rivalry between the two regional Sunni and Shiite heavyweights, and is demanding that a new Lebanese government be formed without Hezbollah members in it.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir has protested what he said was Hezbollah “hijacking the Lebanese state.”
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 the terror group 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.
Nasrallah blasted Saudi Arabia in his speech saying that it is punishing the Lebanese people instead of his group. He said the kingdom has shifted its attention to Lebanon after its 30-month war in Yemen failed to achieve its goals and Saudi-backed rebels in Syria have been suffering setbacks against President Bashar Assad’s forces.
“Are all these measures that are being taken and all the threats about war directed against Hezbollah or against Lebanon,” Nasrallah asked. “If you think that you can defeat Lebanon, the resistance (Hezbollah)… then you are wrong, mistaken and will fail the way you did in all arenas.”
Nasrallah said, without providing proof, that Saudi Arabia had asked Israel to attack Hezbollah in return for billions of dollars. “It is clear that Saudi Arabia… declared war on Lebanon,” Nasrallah said.
Nasrallah said that war with Israel is unlikely amid the crisis triggered by Hariri’s resignation, adding that the terror group is watching carefully for any Israeli attempts to use the crisis to begin hostilities against Lebanon. Nasrallah says Israel is cautious and unlikely to make such a move.
Many fear the escalation will pave the way for Israel to strike Hezbollah, against which Israel has fought a number of wars. Nasrallah warned Israel against “miscalculation” or “taking advantage of the situation.”
On Thursday, Hariri’s Future Movement party delivered its sharpest rebuke yet over Hariri’s absence, demanding that he be returned home immediately — reflecting its belief that he is being held by the Saudis against his will.
Dozens of men, women and children from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain were seen leaving Lebanon on Friday morning through Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport, the countries ordered their citizens to leave the country.
The move was the first concrete action against Lebanon after days of Saudi government officials leveling threats against Beirut.