BEIRUT, Nov 12, (Agencies): Thousands of Lebanese taking part in the country’s annual marathon used the event to call on Prime Minister Saad Hariri to return home after he resigned under mysterious circumstances during a visit to Saudi Arabia. Hariri was a regular participant in the marathon, giving the international sports event a big boost.
This year, President Michel Aoun had encouraged runners to call on Hariri to return. Many Lebanese suspect he was placed under house arrest as part of a Saudi plan to unravel a coalition government he had formed with Hezbollah last year.
A dual Lebanese-Saudi national and an ally of Riyadh, Hariri unexpectedly announced his resignation on Nov 4 in a pre-recorded message broadcast on Saudi TV, criticizing Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, and saying he feared for his safety. His father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri, was killed by a car bomb in Beirut in 2005. His family lives in Riyadh.
Spectators along the 26.2 mile (42.2 kilometer) 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 re-aired an hour-long profile and interview with Hariri recorded 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 don’t know if the prime minister is staying in Saudi Arabia by choice. “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 was wearing 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.” Aoun called on Saudi Arabia Saturday to clarify the reasons why Hariri has not returned home since his resignation. “The obscurity regarding Hariri’s conditions makes anything that he says or does not reflect truth,” the president said.
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. Saudi Arabia has asked its citizens to leave Lebanon, and many Lebanese fear further economic sanctions or even military action against their country.
“It was a shock for the country, and already the country was suffering economically,” said Ziad Zakka, a 52-year-old engineer who took part in the race. “Nobody knows what the future will hold for Lebanon so we need to have him back as soon as possible before it’s too late.” Samir, a 42-year-old banker, was running with his 11-year-old son. He said he fears for his children, and has already stocked up on formula for his new baby. He accused Lebanon’s politicians of allowing foreign interference, and asked that his last name not be used for fear of repercussions.
“We are tired of wars. We don’t want our land to be a place to settle scores and wage wars. It is enough. Have mercy.” Organizers say more than 47,000 participated in the marathon. Separately in the northern city of Tripoli on Saturday, in a sign of rising tension, unknown assailants burned posters of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The 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. Lebanon’s president urged Saudi Arabia on Saturday to explain why Saad Hariri had not returned to Beirut since his surprise resignation as prime minister a week ago. Hariri announced on Nov 4 in a televised statement from Riyadh that he would be stepping down from the post, sending shock waves through Lebanese politics.
The premier has yet to return to Lebanon and rumours have swirled that he is being held in Saudi Arabia against his will. President Michel Aoun on Saturday called on the kingdom to “clarify the reasons that have prevented the return of PM Hariri to Lebanon to be among his people and supporters”. “The obscurity surrounding the condition of PM Saad Hariri since his resignation a week ago means that all positions and actions declared by him or attributed to him do not reflect the truth,” Aoun added. “They are instead a result of the ambiguous and obscure conditions (under which) PM Hariri is living in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” Aoun on Saturday spoke by phone to French President Emmanuel Macron on the “latest developments” around Hariri’s resignation, Lebanon’s presidency said in a statement.
The Lebanese head of state has yet to formally accept Hariri’s resignation and has criticised the circumstances surrounding it as “unacceptable”. On Saturday evening, Hariri attended a reception ceremony at the Riyadh airport for Saudi King Salman who had flown back to the capital from the holy city of Medina, Hariri’s media office.
The emailed statement said Hariri had earlier met in Riyadh with both the British and Turkish envoys to the kingdom.
In his shock announcement, Hariri accused Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of taking over his country and destabilising the broader region, saying he feared for his life. His statement prompted fears that Lebanon — dominated by rival camps led by Hariri and Hezbollah — would be caught up in spiralling tensions between Riyadh and Tehran. Hariri’s week-long absence from Lebanon has sparked rumours that the ex-premier — who also holds Saudi nationality — is under de facto house arrest in the kingdom. “The head of the Lebanese government is detained in Saudi Arabia, he is banned from returning to Lebanon until now,” Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised address Friday.
Members of Hariri’s own Al- Moustaqbal (Future) party said they had no information on his fate. And Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil announced on Friday that he was launching a “diplomatic campaign to bring back the head of our government of his own free will”. Even world powers have appealed for calm and freedom of movement for Hariri. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Friday described Hariri as “a strong partner” and warned against “any party, within or outside Lebanon, using Lebanon as a venue for proxy conflicts or in any manner contributing to instability in that country”. On Friday, a spokesman for France’s foreign ministry said: “We wish Mr Saad Hariri to have all his freedom of movement and to be fully able to play the essential role that is his in Lebanon.”