Lebanon: Saudi Arabia must clarify why Hariri hasn’t returned

One report quotes President Michel Aoun telling foreign officials that outgoing PM ‘kidnapped’ by Riyadh

Michel Aoun speaks to journalists on October 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
Michel Aoun speaks to journalists on October 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

BEIRUT — Lebanese President Michel Aoun called on Saudi Arabia Saturday to clarify the reasons why the country’s prime minister has not returned home since his resignation last week, which he announced from the kingdom.

Lebanese officials have insisted on the return home of Hariri from Saudi Arabia amid rumors he is being held against his will.

Aoun called on Saudi Arabia to clarify why Hariri hasn’t returned home since announcing his resignation saying that “the obscurity regarding Hariri’s conditions makes anything that he says or does not reflect truth.”

Quoting a Lebanese official, Reuters reported that Aoun had told a group of foreign ambassadors that Hariri had been “kidnapped” and must have immunity.

The US added its voice Friday to those urging that Hariri be allowed to return to Lebanon, and the leader of the terrorist group Hezbollah also said the Saudis had “declared war” on Lebanon by holding Hariri against his will.

A political crisis has gripped Lebanon and shattered the relative peace maintained by its coalition government ever since Hariri’s stunning announcement November 4 from the Saudi capital that he was resigning.

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri announces his resignation, November 4, 2017 from Saudi Arabia. (YouTube screenshot)

The announcement from the Saudi-aligned Hariri jolted Lebanon and thrust it back into the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The move and exceptionally strong statements by the Saudis against Iran that followed have deepened the mystery about Hariri’s fate and led to rumors that he is being held in the kingdom against his will, despite his denials.

For the past year, Hariri has headed a coalition government that included members of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia. He cited meddling in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region by Iran and Hezbollah in his decision to step down, adding that Iran’s arm into the region will be “cut off.”

Saudi Arabia appears to want to see Lebanon headed by someone who would form a government without Hezbollah, perhaps believing Hariri has become too lenient toward the group.

In a message apparently aimed at the Saudis but which could easily include Iran, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson cautioned against using Lebanon as “a venue for proxy conflicts.”

If Hariri wants to step down, Tillerson said, he needs to “go back to Lebanon” and formally resign, “so that the government of Lebanon can function properly.”

Screen capture of Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah during an interview with Iran’s state-run Islamic Republic News Agency, February 20, 2017. (Iranian TV Channel/YouTube)

In a televised speech, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Hariri was being detained in Saudi Arabia and that his “forced” resignation was unconstitutional because it was made “under duress.”

“It is clear that Saudi Arabia … declared war on Lebanon,” he said.

Nasrallah said he was certain that Hariri was forced to resign as part of what he called a Saudi policy of meddling in Lebanon’s affairs. Hariri is being prevented by Saudi officials from returning to Lebanon, he said, adding that his detention should not be accepted.

But Tillerson said he’s seen “no indication” that Hariri was being held against his will.

An official in French President Emmanuel Macron’s office also said Hariri has told foreign ambassadors in Saudi Arabia, where he has been since the resignation announcement, that he is not a prisoner.

The French and US ambassadors met with Hariri, who “says he is not a prisoner, the [Saudi crown] prince says he is not a prisoner,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Macron visited Saudi Arabia on Thursday and met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to discuss the tensions between the kingdom and Lebanon, a former French protectorate.

The official said Hariri did not ask to see Macron, and French officials “don’t have any specific signs” that Hariri’s life is in danger.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Europe-1 radio that “to our knowledge,” Hariri is not being held against his will, adding that France believes “he is free in his movements, and it is up to him to make his choices.”

In this photo released on Monday, Oct. 30, 2017 by Lebanon’s official government photographer Dalati Nohra, showing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, meets with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Dalati Nohra via AP)

Also Saturday, Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency reported that Macron called Aoun expressing France’s commitment to Lebanon’s “unity, sovereignty and independence and to help it in preserving political and security stability.”

Aoun said that a Marathon planned in Beirut on Sunday 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.

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