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Tuesday , January 31 2023

Aoun welcomes ‘home soon’ – Free in Saudi, says Hariri

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Lebanese smoke water pipes and play cards at a coffee shop as they listen to outgoing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri during a live interview shown on his Future TV from Saudi Arabia in Beirut, Lebanon on Nov 12. Hariri said Sunday he will return to his country ‘very soon’ amid a political crisis that erupted when he announced his sudden resignation on Nov 4 in Saudi Arabia. (AP)

BEIRUT, Nov 13, (Agencies): Lebanese President Michel Aoun said on Monday he was happy to hear resigned prime minister Saad Hariri would be returning to Beirut from Saudi Arabia “soon”. Hariri stepped down from his post during a televised address more than a week ago from Riyadh and has remained there, sparking rumours he was under de facto house arrest. But he pledged during a television interview on Sunday night that he would be home within days, a development welcomed by Aoun. “I was happy with Prime Minister Hariri’s announcement that he would return to Lebanon soon,” Aoun said on Twitter. “I am awaiting this return to discuss with the prime minister the issue of the resignation, the reasons for it and the circumstances, issues, and concerns that need to be resolved,” he added in an emailed statement.

Aoun had said on Sunday that Hariri appeared to be “restricted” in his movements and demanded Riyadh clarify why he had not returned to Beirut. In Sunday’s interview with his party’s Future TV, Hariri, 47, said he was free to travel and would return to Lebanon in “two or three days”. “I will return to Lebanon very soon to initiate the necessary constitutional procedures,” he said with reference to his resignation.

Power vacuum
Lebanese fear that a new power vacuum in their country could put it in the crosshairs of rising regional tensions between Riyadh and Tehran. And France’s Foreign Minister on Monday said his country was “worried by the situation in Lebanon” and wanted to see the government there “stabilise as quickly as possible”. A fragile balance has ruled over Lebanon since a complex political deal a year ago brought Aoun to the presidency and Hariri to the premiership. “It will still be possible to save this political settlement if the government truly and practically commits to the disassociation policy,” said Samir Geagea, a Christian ally of Hariri, on Monday.

“Especially when it comes to Hezbollah’s withdrawal from Syria and the crises of the region,” Geagea wrote on Twitter. The “disassociation policy” refers to an agreement among political factions that Lebanon would not get involved in regional conflicts. Hariri has blasted Iran and its Shiite ally Hezbollah — an ally of Aoun and a member of the Lebanese government — for intervening militarily in Syria and Yemen. He said he could walk back from his resignation if Lebanese factions seriously committed to keeping out of these conflicts.

Aoun — who has yet to formally accept the premier’s resignation — said on Monday he “acknowledged” Hariri’s comments on reversing the decision.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry categorically denied interfering in Lebanon’s politics. “Lebanon’s internal affairs concern Lebanon, and we never intervene in the internal affairs of other countries,” Bahram Ghassemi said. “Hariri’s resignation was sudden and suspect, but we hope that with his interview last night, he will return to Lebanon as soon as possible so that the legal process of his resignation can be applied,” he added, in quotes reported by state media. Hariri was still in Riyadh on Monday, where he met with the German and British ambassadors to the kingdom.

The head of the Maronite Catholic community in Lebanon said Monday that the return of Hariri back home from Saudi Arabia, where he recently announced his resignation, will restore normal life to the country that was shaken by his move.

Cardinal Bechara el-Rai told reporters before departing to Saudi Arabia that the Lebanese people have been “unsettled” since Hariri’s resignation earlier this month, adding that he will raise the matter with the Saudi king and crown prince. El-Rai had planned his two-day visit before Hariri announced his Nov 4 resignation — in a pre-recorded statement broadcast from Riyadh — plunging Lebanon into crisis and leading to speculation that he was being held against his will.

El-Rai heads the Maronite sect, Lebanon’s largest Christian community and the Middle East’s largest Catholic church, which enjoys wide influence in the country. He said his visit is the first by a Maronite patriarch to the kingdom ever. Hariri said on Sunday he’ll return to Lebanon “within days” to resolve issues with the militant group Hezbollah, his rivals in the coalition government. The comments came in Hariri’s first TV interview since announcing his resignation. He denied he was being held against his will in the kingdom. Hariri, a Saudi ally with dual citizenship, sounded less belligerent in Sunday’s interview than he did during his resignation announcement, in which he blasted Hezbollah and the militant group’s patron, Iran, and said he feared for his safety.

On Sunday he acknowledged his resignation was unconventional, adding that he was ready to return to Lebanon to formally submit it and seek a settlement with Hezbollah. “The Lebanese people have been waiting for him (Hariri) to return because the situation has come to a stop and the Lebanese people have been unsettled,” el-Rai said. “They (the Lebanese) will not rest until he returns so that life returns to normal.” “We will carry these concerns to the king and crown prince and wish well,” he said. El-Rai and Saudi Charge d’Affaires Walid al-Bukhari said the kingdom is not likely to deport Lebanese citizens as punishment for the participation of the militant Hezbollah group in Lebanese politics. The kingdom has been demanding that Hezbollah play no role in future government, accusing the group of supporting anti-Saudi Yemen rebels known as Houthis.

Hezbollah and the Houthis deny that the Lebanese group is carrying out anti-Saudi activities in Yemen. Lebanese President Michel Aoun welcomed Hariri’s statements and said he hoped Hariri would return to Lebanon soon. Once he returns, Aoun tweeted, “we will listen to him about all circumstances, topics and concerns that need addressing.” Hariri’s office said he met several diplomats in Riyadh on Monday including British and German ambassadors. The United States, France and Britain have all expressed strong support for Lebanon’s stability and sovereignty. A White House statement on Saturday described Hariri as “a trusted partner of the United States in strengthening Lebanese institutions, fighting terrorism, and protecting refugees.” On Monday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said “we are preoccupied by the situation in Lebanon.”

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