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Lebanon's Hariri expected in France after 'Saudi hostage' rumors

Des partisans du Premier ministre libanais Saad Hariri réclamant son retour à Beyrouth, le 12 novembre 2017
ANWAR AMRO (AFP)
Hariri dismissed the 'rumors' that he was being held against his will as all speculation

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was expected to fly to France from Saudi Arabia on Friday, in a move aimed at defusing political turmoil sparked by his shock resignation in Riyadh.

The Lebanese premier and his family are due to meet French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Saturday after allegations from Hariri's political rivals in Lebanon that he was essentially being held hostage by the Saudi authorities.

The announcement of the visit came after Hariri, 47, met French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in Riyadh Thursday as Lebanon's former colonial power Paris tries to ease a crisis that has driven up tensions between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Hariri, a dual Saudi citizen, has been in Riyadh since his televised announcement there on November 4 that he was stepping down because he feared for his life, accusing Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of destabilizing his country.

The announcement -- which reportedly took even some of Hariri's closest aides by surprise -- and his subsequent failure to return home to quit officially in person, fueled claims that he was acting under orders from his Saudi patrons.

Both Hariri and Riyadh have denied allegations he was being held against his will, with the Lebanese leader on Friday dismissing as "rumors" all speculation about his situation.

"My stay in the kingdom is aimed at conducting consultations on the future of Lebanon and its relations with its Arab neighbors," he wrote on Twitter.

Macron said he will host Hariri with the honors due to a prime minister when they meet at noon on Saturday, with his family set to join them later for lunch.

'Start of a solution'

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally who had accused Saudi Arabia of "detaining" Hariri and refused to accept his resignation from abroad, welcomed news of the trip to Paris.

"We hope that the crisis is over and Hariri's acceptance of the invitation to go to France is the start of a solution," he said Thursday on the official presidential Twitter account.

Capture d'écran d'AFP TV montre le ministre français des Affaires étrangères Jean-Yves Le Drian (G) lors de sa rencontre avec le Premier ministre libanais démissionnaire Saad Hariri à sa résidence à Ryad, le 16 novembre 2017 ( Rania SANJAR (AFP) )

"If Mr. Hariri speaks from France, I would consider that he speaks freely, but his resignation must be presented in Lebanon, and he will have to remain there until the formation of the new government," Aoun said later in a statement issued by his office.

There is no indication what Hariri plans to do after visiting Macron, but the French leader has insisted he would then be free to return to Lebanon to either formally resign or rethink his decision.

France's intervention was the latest in a string of European efforts to defuse tensions over Lebanon, where divisions between Sunni Hariri's bloc and Shiite Hezbollah have long been a focal point in a broader struggle between Riyadh and Tehran.

Hariri -- whose father, ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri, was killed in a 2005 car bombing blamed on Hezbollah -- became head of a shaky compromise government including the group last year.

Lebanon's Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, from a rival bloc to Hariri's, on Friday during a visit to Moscow blasted unnamed groups for seeking to "dislodge the Lebanese head of state".

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir insisted from Madrid that "unless Hezbollah disarms and becomes a political party, Lebanon will be held hostage by Hezbollah and by extension Iran".

In Washington, Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani compared Saudi Arabia's political maneuvering in Lebanon to its boycott of his country.

"Exactly what happened to Qatar six months ago is happening now to Lebanon," he told reporters.

In June, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt announced they had severed ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting Islamist extremism and fostering close ties with Iran.

Regional clash

Hariri's resignation comes amid a sharp escalation in the long-standing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as Riyadh undergoes a major shake-up under ambitious Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

Riyadh and Tehran back opposing sides in the protracted wars in Yemen and Syria -- entangling them in a complex web of proxy conflicts.

Iran angrily lashed out at France's "biased" Middle East policies after Le Drian accused it of "hegemonic" ambitions in the region during his visit to Riyadh.

But Macron on Friday insisted that Paris wanted dialogue with Tehran.

Mutual suspicion of Iran also appears to have pushed US allies Saudi Arabia and Israel closer together, despite them having no official diplomatic ties.

In a rare interview with an Arabic-language outlet published Thursday, Israel's military chief Gadi Eisenkot said his country was prepared to share information with Saudi Arabia to counter Iran's plans "to control the Middle East".

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