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Lebanese president calls on Saudi to explain why Hariri has not returned

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Lebanese president calls on Saudi to explain why Hariri has not returned

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By Ellen Francis BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s president called on Saudi Arabia on Saturday to clarify why Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri could not leave the kingdom and return home. A senior Lebanese official said President Michel Aoun told foreign ambassadors that Hariri, who resigned suddenly while in Saudi Arabia a week ago, had been “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 a statement. Hariri’s resignation, which caught even his close aides by surprise, has plunged Lebanon into crisis. It has thrust the country back to the forefront of a power struggle between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran – a rivalry that has wrought upheaval in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain. Aoun added that anything Hariri has said or may say “does not reflect reality” due to the mystery surrounding his status since his shock resignation in a broadcast from Saudi Arabia. Lebanese authorities believe Riyadh is holding Hariri, two top Lebanese government officials, a senior politician close to Hariri and a fourth source have said. French President Emmanuel Macron, who made an unscheduled visit to Riyadh this week, phoned Aoun on Saturday to discuss the crisis, after comments by a French official that suggested Paris believed Hariri may not be a free man. Riyadh says Hariri is free and had decided to resign because Iran’s Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, was calling the shots in his coalition government. Western countries have looked on with alarm at rising regional tensions. Hariri has made no public remarks since quitting last week, when he said he feared assassination and accused Iran along with Hezbollah of sowing strife in the Arab world.

FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT Aoun wants Saudi Arabia “with which we have brotherly ties and deeply-rooted friendship, to clarify the reasons preventing Prime Minister Hariri’s return,” the statement from his office said. In in his phone call to Aoun, Macron stressed France’s commitment to Lebanon and its sovereignty, Aoun’s office said. A French foreign ministry spokesman had said on Friday: “We would like Saad al-Hariri to have all his freedom of movement and be fully able to play the essential role that is his in Lebanon.” 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. Hariri’s resignation unravelled a political deal among Lebanon’s rival factions that made him prime minister and Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, president last year. The coalition government included Shi’ite Hezbollah, a heavily armed military and political organisation. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Friday that Saudi had declared war on Lebanon and his group, accusing Riyadh of forcing Hariri to resign to destabilise Lebanon. The comments mirrored an accusation by Riyadh earlier this week that Lebanon and Hezbollah had declared war on the Gulf Arab kingdom. The United States said on Saturday 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. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned other countries and groups against using Lebanon as vehicle for a larger proxy fight in the Middle East. Tillerson told reporters on Friday there was no indication Hariri was being held against his will but that the United States was monitoring the situation. (Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Editing by Richard Balmforth)
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