Tuesday 16 October 2018

Prime Minister Saad Hariri says he will return to Lebanon 'within days'

Saad Hariri gives a live TV interview in Riyadh (Future TV via AP)
Saad Hariri gives a live TV interview in Riyadh (Future TV via AP)
Saad Hariri on a poster in Beirut (AP/Hassan Ammar)
Lebanese women hold placards supporting Saad Hariri during the Beirut Marathon (AP/Hassan Ammar)

Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri has said he will return to his country "within days" amid a political crisis that erupted when he announced his sudden resignation on November 4 in Saudi Arabia.

In a live interview shown on Future TV, Mr Hariri said he had resigned to protect Lebanon from imminent danger, although he did not specify who was threatening the country.

He said he would return to submit his resignation and seek a settlement with his rivals in the coalition government, the militant group Hezbollah.

But Mr 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 neighbouring Syria to support the forces of Syria's President Bashar Assad.

Mr 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," Mr 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 had not kept up its end of the deal.

Apparently seeking to show he was not being detained by the Saudis, Mr 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 was 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," Mr 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 Mr Hariri's resignation was not accepted because it was declared in Saudi Arabia.

Many Lebanese have suspected Mr Hariri was placed under house arrest as part of a Saudi plan to unravel a coalition government he had formed last year with Hezbollah.

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 November 4 in a pre-recorded message on Saudi TV, criticising Iran and Hezbollah, and saying he feared for his safety. Mr Hariri's family lives in Riyadh.

Mr Hariri had not been heard from since but met 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.

Mr 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.

Mr 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 UN-backed tribunal investigating his father's assassination.

Mr 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 Mr Hariri, who heads a Sunni-led camp loyal to Saudi Arabia, and Hezbollah, which represents a faction loyal to Shiite Iran.

AP

Press Association

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