BEIRUT: Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon's government escalated on Thursday amid reports that outgoing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who resigned from Saudi Arabia under mysterious circumstances five days ago, was being held against his will.
Hariri’s political party demanded on Thursday that he returns from the kingdom immediately while the rival Iranian-backed Hezbollah called on Saudi Arabia to stay out of Lebanon’s affairs.
"The return of the Lebanese prime minister, the national leader, Saad Hariri, and the head of the Future Movement, is necessary to restore the dignity and respect to Lebanon at home and abroad," Hariri's Future Movement said in a statement read by former Prime Minister Fouad Saniora, who heads the party's parliamentary bloc.
This comes in the midst of France President Emanuel Macron announcing an impromptu visit to Saudi Arabia to discuss the crisis miring Lebanon, Yemen, and the wider region.
Speaking at a press conference from the U.A.E, Macron said his visit to Riyadh to see the Crown Prince was aimed at discussing regional developments, in particular, Yemen and Lebanon while emphasizing the importance of maintaining Lebanon’s stability and integrity.
A high ranking Lebanese government official told Reuters on Thursday that Lebanon’s government is planning to work with foreign states to secure the return of Hariri from Saudi Arabia, which called on all Saudi nationals living or traveling to Lebanon to depart the country.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc said Thursday that Saudi Arabia was mired in crisis after the failure of its two-and-a-half-year military intervention in Yemen, which has led to a military stalemate.
Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir warned earlier this week that his government would "deal with" Lebanon as a hostile state as long as Hezbollah was in the government.
Lebanon plunged into a political crisis when Hariri declared from Saudi Arabia his resignation due to his perceived rise of Iranian influence in Lebanon and the region while accusing Hezbollah of taking the country hostage.
Hariri is known to have left the kingdom just once since announcing his resignation, on a brief trip to the United Arab Emirates, a close Saudi ally.
Hariri's office released a statement Thursday saying he has met with the French ambassador to Saudi Arabia and the European Union envoy to the kingdom, as well as U.S. and British diplomats.
However, his resignation remains shrouded in mystery.
Aides to Hariri in Saudi Arabia said his decision to remain in the kingdom was due to intelligence reports that he was a target for assassination.
Adding to the speculation, the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, known for its anti-Saudi stance, reported Thursday that the kingdom had decided to replace Hariri with his older brother, Bahaa Hariri, as its new man in Lebanon. It added that Saad Hariri agreed to pay allegiance to his brother as long as he is set free and allowed to move to Europe and leave politics.
Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, a member of Hariri's Future Movement and a close aide, dismissed the reports. "We are not a herd of sheep or a piece of property to hand over from one person to the other," he said.
On Wednesday, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri stated that President Michel Aoun would not proceed with parliamentary consultations to nominate a new Prime Minister before Hariri returns to Lebanon.--with agencies.
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