President of Lebanon Michel Aoun has told foreign ambassadors in a meeting on Friday that the country's prime minister Saad al-Hariri, who resigned suddenly last week in Saudi Arabia, has been "kidnapped" and must have immunity as PM, a senior Lebanese official told Reuters on Saturday.
The Lebanese president has been convening high-level meetings with Lebanese politicians and foreign diplomats since Hariri resigned in a surprise broadcast from Saudi Arabia last week.
Aoun called on Saudi Arabia on Saturday to clarify why Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri could not leave the kingdom and return home.
“Lebanon does not accept its prime minister being in a situation at odds with international treaties,” Aoun said in a statement.
Hariri’s resignation, which caught even his close aides by surprise, has plunged Lebanon into crisis. It has thrust the country back to the forefront of a power struggle between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi‘ite Iran - a rivalry that has wrought upheaval in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain.
Aoun added that anything Hariri has said or may say “does not reflect reality” due to the mystery surrounding his status since his shock resignation in a broadcast from Saudi Arabia.
Lebanese authorities believe Riyadh is holding Hariri, two top Lebanese government officials, a senior politician close to Hariri and a fourth source have said.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who made an unscheduled visit to Riyadh this week, phoned Aoun on Saturday to discuss the crisis, after comments by a French official that suggested Paris believed Hariri may not be a free man.
Riyadh says Hariri is free and had decided to resign because Iran’s Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, was calling the shots in his coalition government.
Western countries have looked on with alarm at rising regional tensions.
Hariri has made no public remarks since quitting last week, when he said he feared assassination and accused Iran along with Hezbollah of sowing strife in the Arab world.
Freedom of movementAoun wants Saudi Arabia “with which we have brotherly ties and deeply-rooted friendship, to clarify the reasons preventing Prime Minister Hariri’s return,” the statement from his office said.
In his phone call to Aoun, Macron stressed France’s commitment to Lebanon and its sovereignty, Aoun’s office said.
A French foreign ministry spokesman had said on Friday: “We would like Saad al-Hariri to have all his freedom of movement and be fully able to play the essential role that is his in Lebanon.”
A Lebanese official who declined to be named said Aoun, who has been convening high-level meetings with politicians and diplomats, told ambassadors on Friday that Hariri was kidnapped.
Hariri’s resignation unraveled a political deal among Lebanon’s rival factions that made him prime minister and Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, president last year.