November 16, 2017 / 11:12 AM / 2 months ago

Lebanese president hopes Hariri visit to France will end crisis

BEIRUT/PARIS (Reuters) - Lebanon’s president said on Thursday he hoped the crisis surrounding Saad al-Hariri’s resignation as prime minister was near its end after Hariri said he would travel to France from Saudi Arabia where he has been since stepping down.

French President Emmanuel Macron has invited Hariri and his family to France, providing a diplomatic way-out for him to leave Saudi Arabia without any side losing face.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun said earlier this week that Hariri, who abruptly announced his resignation while in Saudi Arabia, was being held hostage by Riyadh.

The crisis has embroiled Lebanon in the Middle East’s bitter rivalry that pits Saudi Arabia and its allies against a bloc led by Iran that includes the Lebanese Shi‘ite Hezbollah group.

“We hope the crisis is over and the door of solution is opened by PM Hariri’s acceptance of the invitation to visit France,” Aoun said in a tweet on Thursday.

“The problem of Hariri’s being held in Saudi Arabia is on its way to being solved,” presidential sources additionally quoted Aoun as saying.

A source close to Hariri said he was expected to leave Riyadh with his family for Paris in the next 48 hours, before travelling on to Beirut. A French diplomatic source said his arrival time in Paris was not yet known.

Saudi Arabia last week accused Lebanon of declaring war on it, citing Hezbollah’s role in other Arab countries. The group has fought alongside Iran in Syria against Saudi-backed rebels. Riyadh also accuses it of helping the Houthi group in Yemen fight a Saudi-led coalition.

Hariri has long been allied to Saudi Arabia. He travelled there on Nov. 3 and suddenly resigned the following day. He has since left Riyadh only for an hours-long visit to Saudi Arabia’s Gulf ally the UAE on Nov. 7.

France's Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (L) and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir attend a joint news conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 16, 2017. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser

His resignation while abroad, alleging a plot against his life and railing against Iran and Hezbollah, led to speculation in Beirut about Saudi Arabia’s role in the decision.

Top Lebanese officials and senior politicians close to Hariri say he was forced to quit and was being held by the Saudis. Politicians from all sides in Lebanon have called for his return to Beirut.

Saudi Arabia has denied forcing him to resign or detaining him. Hariri has said he is free to leave and would return soon to formally submit his resignation, which Aoun has said he will accept only in person.

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While Riyadh has accused the Lebanese state of hostility, Western states have taken a markedly different tone, stressing their support for both Hariri and the Beirut government even though they see Hezbollah as a terrorist group. Lebanon’s army is a significant recipient of U.S. military aid.

PRESSURE ON LEBANON

In an interview on Sunday, his first public comments since resigning, Hariri warned of possible Saudi action against Lebanon, including the risk of Arab sanctions and threats to the livelihood of Lebanese workers in the Gulf.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil had toured European capitals to find diplomatic help for finding a way out of the crisis.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Wednesday and will meet Hariri on Thursday.

He said France was working to normalise the situation in Lebanon. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said at a news conference with Le Drian that Hezbollah was destabilising the region and must be disarmed.

France is closely allied to both Saudi Arabia and to Lebanon, which it controlled between the world wars last century. Hariri has a home in Paris and lived there for years.

Reporting By Sarah Dadouch and Samia Nakhoul in Beirut, John Irish in Paris and Stephen Kalin in Riyadh; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Richard Balmforth

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