Aoun or­ders PM to get back to Lebanon

Fears that he’s held against his will

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PRES­I­DENT Michel Aoun said Saudi Ara­bia’s en­voy Saad al- Hariri must re­turn to Lebanon and the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing his res­ig­na­tion as prime min­is­ter while in Saudi Ara­bia were un­ac­cept­able, pres­i­den­tial sources said yes­ter­day.

The Le­banese au­thor­i­ties be­lieve Hariri is be­ing held in Saudi Ara­bia, two top Le­banese gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, a se­nior politi­cian close to Hariri and a fourth source said on Thurs­day, amid a deep­en­ing cri­sis push­ing Lebanon onto the front­lines of a power strug­gle be­tween Saudi Ara­bia and Iran.

Riyadh said Hariri, a long­time Saudi ally, was a free man and it had noth­ing to do with his de­ci­sion to an­nounce his res­ig­na­tion on Satur­day while in Saudi Ara­bia.

Since Hariri’s an­nounce­ment, Saudi Ara­bia has ac­cused Lebanon and its Shia Hezbol­lah move­ment of declar­ing war on it. Riyadh has ad­vised Saudi ci­ti­zens not to travel to Lebanon or, if there to, leave as soon as pos­si­ble. Other Gulf states have also is­sued travel warn­ings.

The steps have raised con­cern that Riyadh could take mea­sures against the tiny Arab state, which hosts 1.5 mil­lion Syr­ian refugees.

Lebanon, where Sun­nis, Shia, Chris­tians and Druze, all backed by ri­val re­gional pow­ers, fought a civil war from 1975 to 1990, main­tains a gov­ern­ing sys­tem de­signed to en­sure each group is rep­re­sented.

The shock res­ig­na­tion of Sunni po­lit­i­cal leader Hariri has thrust Lebanon back to the cen­tre of a re­gional strug­gle be­tween the Sunni monar­chy of Saudi Ara­bia and Shia Is­lamist Iran, whose pow­er­ful Le­banese Shia ally Hezbol­lah has ma­jor sway.

An “in­ter­na­tional sup­port group” of coun­tries con­cerned about Lebanon, which in­cludes the US, Rus­sia and France, ap­pealed for Lebanon “to con­tinue to be shielded from ten­sion in the re­gion”. They wel­comed Aoun’s call for Hariri to re­turn.

Dur­ing the meet­ing with the Saudi en­voy, Aoun ex­pressed con­cern over re­ports about Hariri’s cir­cum­stances and urged clar­i­fi­ca­tion, pres­i­den­tial sources said.

Hariri, whose fa­ther, a long- serv­ing prime min­is­ter, was killed by a bomb in 2005, said in his res­ig­na­tion he feared as­sas­si­na­tion and blamed Iran for med­dling in Lebanon’s af­fairs.

His res­ig­na­tion un­rav­elled a po­lit­i­cal deal among ri­val fac­tions that made him prime min­is­ter and Aoun, a po­lit­i­cal ally of Hezbol­lah, head of state last year.

The coali­tion gov­ern­ment in­cluded Hezbol­lah, a heav­ily armed mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal or­gan­i­sa­tion.

France and Ger­many said yes­ter­day they did not be­lieve Hariri was be­ing held against his will.

“Our con­cern is the sta­bil­ity of Lebanon and that a po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion can be put in place rapidly,” French for­eign min­is­ter Jean-Yves Le Drian told Europe 1 ra­dio.

“We think (Hariri) is free of his move­ments and it’s im­por­tant he makes his own choices,” he said.

On Thurs­day, Hariri’s Fu­ture Move­ment po­lit­i­cal party said his re­turn home was nec­es­sary to up­hold the Le­banese sys­tem, de­scrib­ing him as prime min­is­ter and a na­tional leader.

Aoun has re­fused to ac­cept the res­ig­na­tion un­til Hariri re­turns to Lebanon to de­liver it to him in per­son and ex­plain his rea­sons.

Top Le­banese Druze politi­cian Walid Jum­blatt said it was time Hariri re­turned to Lebanon. Af­ter a week of ab­sence, “be it forced or vol­un­tary”, it was “time for Sheikh Saad to re­turn,” Jum­blatt said on Twit­ter.

“By the way, there is no al­ter­na­tive to him,” he added.

Hezbol­lah leader Sayyed Has­san Nas­ral­lah was ex­pected to ad­dress the cri­sis at 3pm lo­cal time in a pub­lic ad­dress to mark a re­li­gious oc­ca­sion yes­ter­day.

Saudi Ara­bia con­sid­ers Ira­nian-al­lied Hezbol­lah to be its en­emy in con­flicts across the Mid­dle East, in­clud­ing Syria and Ye­men.

The Saudi for­eign min­is­ter ac­cused Hezbol­lah of a role in the launch­ing of a bal­lis­tic mis­sile at Riyadh from Ye­men on Satur­day. Saudi Ara­bia’s Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man said Iran’s sup­ply of rock­ets to mili­tias in Ye­men was an act of mil­i­tary ag­gres­sion that could be an act of war.

The res­ig­na­tion of Hariri, who is also a busi­ness ty­coon with ma­jor in­vest­ments in Saudi Ara­bia, also comes as Riyadh has rounded up dozens of se­nior princes and busi­ness­men in a cor­rup­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tion. – Reuters

PIC­TURE: REUTERS

Pres­i­dent Michel Aoun.

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