Pressure in Lebanon and abroad mounted on Wednesday for premier Saad Hariri to return to Beirut from Saudi Arabia, where he has stayed since his surprise resignation earlier this month.
Hardening his tone, Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun accused Saudi Arabia of “detaining” Hariri, who is to meet in Riyadh on Thursday with France’s chief diplomat.
Speculation has swirled around Hariri’s prolonged stay in the kingdom since he announced in a televised statement on November 4 that he would be stepping down as Lebanon’s prime minister.
“Nothing justifies the failure of Prime Minister Saad Hariri to return for 12 days, therefore we consider him to be held and detained, contrary to the Vienna Convention,” Aoun said in a tweet on the official Lebanese presidency account.
“We will not accept that he remain a hostage and that we do not know the reasons for his detention,” he added.
There have been rumours that Hariri, who is a Saudi citizen and grew up in the kingdom, had been detained along with dozens of Saudis in what Riyadh says is an anti-corruption campaign.
Shortly after Aoun’s statement, Hariri also took to Twitter in an apparent bid to quell rumours of his detention.
“I want to repeat and confirm: I am totally, totally fine and I’ll come back, God willing, to beloved Lebanon like I promised you all. You’ll see,” he wrote.
But he would be in Riyadh for at least one more day to meet with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
‘Attack on Lebanon’
Le Drian was due in Saudi Arabia later Wednesday and scheduled to meet with powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman before holding talks with Hariri on Thursday, according to an aide.
French President Emmanuel Macron, in a fresh statement via a spokesman Wednesday, stressed that Hariri should be able to return to Lebanon to confirm, or not, his resignation.
In his sharply-worded resignation from Saudi Arabia, Hariri, 47, accused Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of destabilising his country and the broader region.
The statement sparked concern that tiny Lebanon would be caught in the crosshairs of rising tensions between Riyadh and Tehran.
Lebanon’s president on Wednesday sought to allay those fears, telling citizens, “do not be afraid, whether economically, financially or in terms of security”.
While he was guarded in his first reactions to Hariri’s absence, Aoun has since stepped up the rhetoric.
“What happened wasn’t a resignation — it was an attack on Lebanon’s independence and dignity,” he said Wednesday, adding that Hariri’s absence represented “a violation of the international declaration of human rights”.
Aoun, 82, has yet to formally accept Hariri’s resignation and has said he will not do so before meeting him in person in Lebanon.
“No decision can be made on a resignation from abroad,” he said.
‘Period of uncertainty’
In his first media appearance since he stepped down, Hariri said on Sunday that he had freedom of movement and would return to Lebanon in the coming days.
He repeated the sentiment on Tuesday, publishing his first tweet in more than a week to insist he was “perfectly fine” and would be back in Beirut within days.
But he has yet to show any sign of returning home, and statements from France and other countries have fuelled speculation that he is being held in Saudi Arabia.
European nations and the US have not pointed the finger at Saudi authorities directly, but have expressed public concern about Hariri’s absence and warned against attempts to interfere in Lebanon’s fragile democracy.
“What’s at stake is Mr Hariri being able to return home freely to clarify his situation in line with the Lebanese constitution,” French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told parliament in Paris.
The EU’s diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini said Tuesday that European diplomats had “close contacts” with Hariri and also expected him to return home “in the coming days”.