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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Lebanon's Hariri 'will be back in Beirut by Independence Day'

Former prime minister Saad Hariri has been outside Lebanon for more than two weeks after announcing his resignation from the Saudi capital on November 4. He remained in the kingdom until Friday when he left for Paris

Lebanon's Saad Hariri said on Saturday he would be back in Beirut by Wednesday and would then make clear his position on the political crisis that has engulfed the country since his shock resignation earlier this month.

Mr Hariri was speaking after a meeting in Paris with the French president, Emmanuel Macron.

“With regard to the political situation in Lebanon, I will go to Beirut in the coming days, I will participate in the independence celebrations [on Wednesday], and it is there that I will make known my position on these subjects after meeting president [Michel] Aoun,” Mr Hariri said.

Mr Hariri has been outside Lebanon for more than two weeks after announcing his resignation from the Saudi capital on November 4. He remained in the kingdom until Friday when he left for Paris.

Shortly after Mr Hariri's arrival in the French capital early on Saturday, it was reported that he had begun meeting and speaking with Lebanese politicians. During his stay in Saudi Arabia, Mr Hariri had been largely silent, save for a single television interview and a handful of tweets.

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The former Lebanese prime minister also had lunch with Mr Macron, who extended the invitation last week for Mr Hariri and his family to come to Paris.

Mr Hariri has sought to dispel rumours that he had been in Saudi Arabia against his will.

“My stay in the Kingdom was for consultations on the future of the situation in Lebanon and its relations with the Arab region,” he tweeted on Friday. “All the other stories about my stay … are just rumours.”

Mr Aoun and members of Mr Hariri’s own party accused Saudi Arabia of holding the former prime minister captive and forcing him to resign as a challenge to Iran’s growing influence in the region. Hizbollah, Mr Hariri’s chief political rival, receives support from Iran, while Saudi Arabia has traditionally been a patron of Lebanon’s Sunni community.

In the year prior to his resignation, however, Mr Hariri presided over a consensus government with Hizbollah, leading many Lebanese to conclude that Riyadh was hoping to replace Mr Hariri with someone who would take a harder line against the group.

Mr Aoun has said he will not accept Mr Hariri's resignation unless it is made in person, and that his government remains in place.

Wednesday marks the anniversary of Lebanon’s independence from France, which ruled the country from 1920 to 1943. Mr Hariri himself has long-standing ties with France, owning a home there and holding French citizenship. He lived between Saudi Arabia and France during a period of self-imposed exile between 2011 and 2014.

France has sought to mediate the crisis in the past weeks, with Mr Macron making a surprise visit to Saudi Arabia as the saga began to unfold.

“Lebanon is being shaken so it’s important Hariri comes to Paris for us to work with him on the best way out of the crisis,” a senior French diplomat told Reuters. “We’re trying to create the conditions for a de-escalation in the region. We want to avoid a proliferation of crises that could get out of control.”

French officials have also stepped up their criticism of Iran and its role in the Middle East. Mr Macron said on Friday that Tehran should be less aggressive in the region and should clarify the strategy around its ballistic missile programme. The previous day, French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian criticised Iran’s “hegemonic intentions” during a press conference in Riyadh with the Saudi foreign minister.

On Saturday, US president Donald Trump spoke with Mr Macron about the situation in Lebanon and Syria. The White House said the leaders agreed on the need to work with allies to counter Hizbollah's and Iran's destabilising activities in the region.

Iran in turn has accused Paris of siding with Saudi Arabia. On Saturday, Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to the Iranian supreme leader, said France should not interfere in Iran's missile programme.

"It does not benefit Mr Macron and France to interfere on the missile issue and the strategic affairs of the Islamic Republic, which we have great sensitivities about," Mr Velayati said.

Also on Saturday, the state-run Saudi Press Agency reported that Arab League foreign ministers would hold an emergency meeting in Cairo the next day to discuss ways to combat Iranian interference in the affairs of Arab countries. The meeting was requested by Saudi Arabia with the support of the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait, it said.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have supported opposing factions in Syria’s six-year war, a conflict that the Iranian-allied Syrian government now looks to be winning. Earlier this month, meanwhile, Riyadh accused Iran of providing missiles to Yemen's Houthi rebels which had been used in attacks against the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia has also accused Hizbollah, which has sent thousands of men to fight in Syria, of playing a role in Yemen's war.

*Additional reporting by Reuters and Associated Press