Saad Hariri walks with Saudi Arabia's Prince Khaled al-Faisal in Beirut, Lebanon November 21, 2016. .
(photo credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR / REUTERS)
BEIRUT - President Michel Aoun told Saudi Arabia's envoy on Friday that Saad Hariri must return to Lebanon and the circumstances surrounding his resignation as prime minister while in Saudi Arabia were unacceptable, presidential sources said.
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 told Reuters on Thursday, amid a deepening crisis pushing Lebanon onto the frontlines of a power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Riyadh says Hariri, a long-time Saudi ally, is 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 Shi'ite Hezbollah movement of declaring war on it. Riyadh has advised Saudi citizens not to travel to Lebanon, or if already there to leave as soon as possible
. Other Gulf states have also issued travel warnings.
Those steps have raised concern that Riyadh could take measures against the tiny Arab state, which hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees.
Lebanon, where Sunnis, Shi'ites, Christians and Druze, all backed by rival regional powers, fought a civil war from 1975-1990, 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 center of a regional struggle between the Sunni monarchy of Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Islamist Iran, whose powerful Lebanese Shi'ite ally Hezbollah has major sway.
An "international support group" of countries concerned about Lebanon, which includes the United States, Russia and France, appealed for Lebanon "to continue to be shielded from tensions in the region." In a statement, they also 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 that he feared assassination and blamed Iran for meddling in Lebanon's affairs.
Saudi says Lebanon declared war, crisis deepens, November 7, 2017. (Reuters)
His resignation unraveled 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 organization.
In the first direct Western comment on Hariri's status, France and Germany both said on Friday 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.
"As far as we know, yes: we think (Hariri) is free of his movements and it's important he makes his own choices," he said.
JUMBLATT SEES NO ALTERNATIVE TO HARIRI
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 on Friday it was time that 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 is expected to address the crisis at 3 pm in a public address to mark a religious occasion.
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 "direct military aggression" that could be an act of war.
The resignation of Hariri, who as well as a politician is 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.