Lebanon's president has told foreign ambassadors that the country's prime minister Saad Hariri, who resigned suddenly last week in Saudi Arabia, has been "kidnapped" and must have immunity, a senior Lebanese official told Reuters on Saturday.
A political crisis has gripped Lebanon and shattered the relative peace maintained by its coalition government since Hariri's stunning announcement November 4 from the Saudi capital that he was resigning.
President Michel Aoun has been convening high-level meetings with Lebanese politicians and foreign diplomats since Hariri resigned in a surprise broadcast from Saudi Arabia last week.
He made the remark in a meeting on Friday, the official said.
Aoun called on Saudi Arabia Saturday to clarify the reasons why the country's prime minister has not returned home since his resignation. The United States and France expressed their support for Lebanon's sovereignty and stability amid heightening tensions between Beirut and Saudi Arabia.
Lebanese officials have insisted on the return home of Hariri from Saudi Arabia amid rumors he is being held against his will. Saudi officials have said that their measures against Lebanon are in response to the militant group Hezbollah's support of anti-Saudi rebels in Yemen known as Houthis.
In statements released by his office, Aoun called on Saudi Arabia "that is linked to us through deep brotherly and friendly relations to clarify the reasons that are preventing" Hariri from returning to Lebanon.
Aoun said that "the obscurity regarding Hariri's conditions makes anything that he says or does not reflect truth." It was an indication that Aoun does not recognize Hariri's resignation.
Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah, who supports Aoun, said on Friday that Saudi Arabia had declared war on Lebanon and the Iran-backed group, accusing Riyadh of detaining Hariri and forcing him to resign. Nasrallah said Saudi Arabia's detention of Hariri was an insult to all Lebanese and he must return to Lebanon.
Nasrallah also said Riyadh is inciting Israel to strike Lebanon, and his militant group is watching carefully for any Israeli attempts to use the crisis to begin hostilities against Lebanon. He said Israel is cautious, however, and unlikely to make such a move.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement that Washington calls upon "all states and parties to respect Lebanon's sovereignty, independence, and constitutional processes."
Saudi Minister for Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan warned earlier this month that his government would deal with Lebanon as a hostile state as long as Hezbollah was in the Lebanese government. The Lebanese unity government that Hariri formed a year ago includes Hezbollah members — the result of a tacit Saudi-Iranian agreement to sideline Lebanon from the other proxy wars in the region.
"In this sensitive time, the United States also rejects any efforts by militias within Lebanon or by any foreign forces to threaten Lebanon's stability, undermine Lebanese government institutions, or use Lebanon as a base from which to threaten others in the region," Sanders said. She was apparently referring to Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia.
Sanders described Hariri as "a trusted partner of the United States in strengthening Lebanese institutions, fighting terrorism, and protecting refugees." Sanders said the Lebanese army and security forces are the only legitimate forces in Lebanon.
Also Saturday, Lebanon's state-run National News Agency reported that French President Emmanuel Macron called Aoun expressing France's commitment to Lebanon's "unity, sovereignty and independence and to help it in preserving political and security stability."
Aoun said that a Marathon planned in Beirut on Sunday in which tens of thousands will participate should be "a national sports demonstration for solidarity with prime minister Hariri and his return to his country."
Last year Hariri took part in the marathon, wearing the number 3.
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