May 13, 2008 / 12:30 PM / 11 years ago

UPDATE 4-Saudi says Lebanon violence may affect Iran ties

(Adds Ahmadinejad comments paragraphs 5-7)

By Souhail Karam

RIYADH, May 13 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia said on Tuesday Iranian-backed Hezbollah’s routing of the Western-backed government’s supporters in Lebanon could affect the Islamic Republic’s ties with Arab countries.

“Of course, for Iran to back the coup that happened in Lebanon and support it will have an impact on its relations with all Arab countries,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said at a news conference.

Lebanon’s army stepped up patrols on Tuesday as part of a drive to restore order after a week of fighting between Hezbollah fighters and pro-government gunmen.

Hezbollah, the Shi’ite Muslim movement backed by Iran and Syria, and its opposition allies have routed supporters of the Sunni-led government in Beirut and hills to the east in fighting that has pushed Lebanon to the brink of a new civil war.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rejected accusations Iran was meddling in Lebanon and blamed the violence on the United States and Israel, the Islamic Republic’s foes.

“Iran is the only country not interfering in Lebanon,” he told a news conference, adding that the violence was “Lebanon’s war with things imposed by America”.

“Why do you provoke? Why have you armed some groups and created a war?” he added, referring to the United States.

Prince Saud said his U.S.-allied country, a Sunni Muslim power and strong backer of Lebanon’s government, was concerned about what he called the “coup” that had taken place in Lebanon.

In an apparent reference to Iran and Syria, he called on regional players not to interfere in Lebanon’s political affairs and undermine its sovereignty.

“GRAVE CONCERN”

“The kingdom renews its calls to all regional sides to respect the sovereignty and independence of Lebanon and to desist from interfering in its internal affairs and provoking sectarian strife...” he said.

“The kingdom expresses its grave concern over the continuing armed confrontations in Lebanon and their spread to many Lebanese areas and cities and its strong regret over Lebanese arms being turned inwards against the Lebanese, the nation and its institutions.”

Riyadh has recalled its ambassador in Beirut for consultations and he will return once calm is restored, Prince Saud said, adding that the Saudi embassy would remain open.

He also urged the Lebanese army to restore public order and called for its capacities to be bolstered, but noted that this support should come from the Lebanese government itself.

Lebanon was experiencing its calmest day since violence flared on May 7 after Prime Minister Fouad Siniora outlawed Hezbollah’s communications network and fired Beirut airport’s security chief, who is close to the Shi’ite group.

Hezbollah said this was a declaration of war and swiftly took over much of Beirut, crushing pro-government Sunni Muslim gunmen. It then handed over its gains to the army.

The Saudi foreign minister also warned against a continuation of the violence and backed an Arab League call for the withdrawal of armed elements from the streets of Lebanon.

“We call on all Lebanese sides to respond to the honest efforts of the Arab League ... to resolve the Lebanese crisis according to the Arab initiative that aims to launch Lebanese political dialogue rather than rockets and bullets between Lebanese,” he said. (Additional reporting by Zahra Hosseinian in Tehran, Writing Lin Noueihed, edited by Richard Meares)

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