US joins calls for PM's return to Lebanon from Saudi Arabia

Associated Press

Lebanese officials insisted Friday on the return home of Prime Minister Saad Hariri from Saudi Arabia, and the leader of the militant group Hezbollah said the Saudis had "declared war" on Lebanon by holding Hariri against his will.

The U.S. added its voice to those urging that Hariri be allowed to return to Lebanon. A political crisis has gripped the country and shattered the relative peace maintained by its coalition government ever since his stunning announcement Nov. 4 from the Saudi capital that he was resigning.

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 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, U.S. 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."

Lebanese President Michel Aoun told Saudi Charge d'Affaires Walid al-Bukhari on Friday that the manner in which Hariri resigned "was unacceptable," a Lebanese official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. He called for Hariri's return.

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 U.S. 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."

The crisis was widely seen as a bid by Saudi Arabia to wreck Lebanon's coalition government to try to undermine and limit Iran's influence in the country through the power that Hezbollah wields.

In the first concrete action against Lebanon after days of threats by Saudi government officials, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries ordered their citizens to leave the country amid the soaring tensions. Dozens of citizens of Gulf Arab countries were seen leaving Lebanon early Friday via Beirut's international airport.

In remarks to reporters while flying from China to Vietnam, Tillerson said Washington "supports the stability of Lebanon and is opposed to any actions that could threaten that stability."

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also said it's essential that Lebanon remain peaceful, warning that a new conflict could have "devastating consequences" in the region.

Hariri's appointment as prime minister and the formation of a government was a result of a tacit agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to sideline Lebanon from other regional proxy wars, particularly in neighboring Syria.

Iran is widely seen to have prevailed over mainly Sunni rebels in Syria, and with the wars in Yemen and the crisis in Qatar at an impasse, the Saudi crown prince may have decided to try to curb Iran's influence in Lebanon.

It is unclear what Saudi Arabia's long-term calculation is with Hariri. So far, it appears to have united the Lebanese against the kingdom, with most people seeing the incident as an affront and a humiliation for him.

Any Saudi military moves in Lebanon would likely be opposed by the international community, which wants to see Lebanon remain calm. Many fear an escalation will pave the way for Israel to strike Hezbollah. The two have fought a number of wars, but there appears to be no immediate indication of an attack.

There is concern that Saudi Arabia could impose punitive measures that would hurt Lebanon's fragile economy.

Lebanese officials are acting with caution, insisting on Hariri's return before starting the complicated task of forming a new government.

In his speech, Nasrallah said Saudi Arabia is punishing Lebanon's people instead of his group. He said the kingdom has shifted its attention to Lebanon after a failed 30-month war in Yemen and with Saudi-backed rebels in Syria suffering setbacks.

"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 any proof, Nasrallah said that Saudi Arabia had asked Israel to attack Hezbollah in return for billions of dollars.

Nasrallah said war with Israel is unlikely amid the Hariri crisis, adding that the group is watching carefully for any Israeli attempts to use it to begin hostilities against Lebanon. He said Israel is cautious and unlikely to make such a move.

Still, he warned Israel against "miscalculation" or "taking advantage of the situation."

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Associated Press writers Sylvie Corbet and Angela Charlton in Paris, Josh Lederman in Washington and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed.

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