BEIRUT: Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri said Sunday he will return to his country "within days" amid a political crisis that erupted when he announced his sudden resignation on Nov. 4 in Saudi Arabia.
In a live interview shown on Future TV, Hariri said he had resigned to protect Lebanon from imminent danger, although he didn't specify who was threatening the country. He said he will return to submit his resignation and seek a settlement with his rivals in the coalition government, the militant group Hezbollah.
But Hariri said withdrawing his resignation would be conditional on the Iranian-backed Hezbollah committing to remaining neutral on regional conflicts. Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to neighboring Syria to support the forces of Syria's President Bashar Assad.
Hariri looked tired and sad in the interview from Saudi Arabia on his Future TV channel that lasted more than an hour. He held back tears as he spoke and repeated several times that he resigned to cause a "positive shock" and draw attention to the danger of siding with Iran in regional conflicts.
"We are in the eye of the storm," Hariri said.
He said the unity government he formed a year ago was supposed to stick to an agreement not to interfere in regional affairs but that Hezbollah has not kept up its end of the deal.
Apparently seeking to show he was not being detained by the Saudis, Hariri told the interviewer: "I am free."
He said his resignation was his own decision, dismissing reports he was forced into it. But he also said he is looking into security arrangements before returning to Lebanon, suggesting his life was in danger.
"I saw what happened ... when my father was martyred. I don't want the same thing to happen to me," Hariri said. His father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was killed by a car bomb in Beirut in 2005.
The interview followed pressure from Lebanese officials, who said Hariri's resignation was not accepted because it was declared in Saudi Arabia. Many Lebanese have suspected Hariri was placed under house arrest as part of a Saudi plan to unravel a coalition government he had formed last year with Hezbollah.
Hariri said his resignation was designed to "cause a positive shock" in Lebanon, warning against what he said was Iranian interference that is ruining relations with other Arab countries.
Hariri said the unity government he formed a year ago was supposed to stick to an agreement not to interfere in regional affairs and Hezbollah has not kept up its end of the deal.
"We are in the eye of the storm," he said.
Lebanon President Michel Aoun said before the interview that the "mysterious circumstances for Hariri's stay in the Saudi capital of Riyadh makes all his positions questionable and in doubt and not of his own volition."
A dual Lebanese-Saudi national, the Saudi-allied Hariri unexpectedly announced his resignation on Nov. 4 in a pre-recorded message on Saudi TV, criticizing Iran and Hezbollah, and saying he feared for his safety. Hariri's family lives in Riyadh.
Hariri had not been heard from since but met with foreign diplomats, and appeared with Saudi royalty and in Abu Dhabi.
Saudi Arabia has stepped up its rhetoric against Hezbollah and its patron, Iran, accusing both of supporting Shiite rebels in Yemen known as Houthis. A Saudi-led coalition has been at war with the Houthis since March 2015.
Hariri said relations between Saudi Arabia and Hezbollah soured after the conflict began in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia has asked its citizens to leave Lebanon, and many Lebanese fear further economic sanctions or even military action against their country.
Hariri, 47, first held the post of prime minister in November 2009 for nearly two years before Hezbollah forced the collapse of his government. Hezbollah ministers withdrew because of differences over a U.N.-backed tribunal investigating his father's assassination.
Hariri was appointed prime minister in late 2016 and headed a 30-member coalition government that included Hezbollah. But it has been an uneasy partnership between Hariri, who heads a Sunni-led camp loyal to Saudi Arabia, and Hezbollah, which represents a faction loyal to Shiite Iran.
A business graduate of Georgetown University in Washington, he headed his father's Saudi-based construction business for years. The company has struggled with debts for years before closing down in July.
Hariri was born in Riyadh in 1970. He is Rafik Hariri's second son from his first Iraqi wife. He is married to a Syrian, and has three children, the oldest an 18-year-old son.
Earlier Sunday, thousands of people attending Lebanon's annual marathon used the event to urge Hariri to return home.
Hariri was a regular participant in the marathon, giving the international sports event a big boost. This year, President Michel Aoun encouraged runners to call on Hariri to return. Organizers say more than 47,000 participated in the marathon.
Spectators along the marathon course wore hats and held signs reading "Running for you" and "Waiting for you." Large billboards with pictures of Hariri rose overhead, and a local TV station showed an hour-long profile and interview with Hariri from last year.
One woman raised a placard reading: "We want our prime minister back."
Ibrahim al-Masri, a 37-year-old Hariri supporter, said the Lebanese didn't know if it was Hariri's choice to stay in Saudi Arabia.
"Whatever he chooses, we are with him. We want him to first come to Lebanon. We will die for him," al-Masri said.
Joanne Hamza, a physical education teacher who wore a cap with a picture of Hariri on it, said he was missed at the race.
"But in a sense, his absence has been unifying. All Lebanese, from all sects, are missing their leader. This is somehow reassuring but we still want him with us."
In the northern city of Tripoli on Saturday, unknown assailants burned posters of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a sign of the rising tensions. Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk tweeted that those acts did not reflect the "true feelings" of the people of Tripoli or Lebanon, and called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.
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