x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 21 November 2017

Lebanon crisis: No sign of Hariri, Saudi citizen kidnapped

Reports emerged on Saturday that a Saudi citizen was kidnapped in Lebanon, a day after the government issued a statement advising their citizens to avoid travel to Lebanon

This picture shows a poster of Saad Hariri and Arabic words reading 'We are all Saad' hanging on a street in Beirut, Lebanon, on November 10, 2017. Wael Hamzeh / EPA
This picture shows a poster of Saad Hariri and Arabic words reading 'We are all Saad' hanging on a street in Beirut, Lebanon, on November 10, 2017. Wael Hamzeh / EPA

A week after he travelled to Riyadh and suddenly resigned his post as Lebanese prime minister, it was still unclear on Saturday when or whether Saad Hariri would return to Beirut.

Also on Saturday, reports emerged that a Saudi citizen was kidnapped in Lebanon, a day after the government issued a statement advising their citizens to avoid travel to Lebanon or leave if they are already there. Kuwait, the UAE and Bahrain have issued similar warnings.

Lebanese leaders, including president Michel Aoun, and Hizbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah called for Mr Hariri’s return, saying that he remains the country’s premier until he returns to Lebanon and his resignation is formally accepted.

They have also said his cabinet — which includes members of the Iran-backed Hizbollah group — will remain in place.

Mr Aoun called on Saudi Arabia on Saturday to provide more information regarding Mr Hariri’s status in the country amid rumours that he was being held in the kingdom against his will.

"The obscurity surrounding the condition of prime minister 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," Mr Aoun said.

"They are instead a result of the ambiguous and obscure conditions [under which] prime minister Hariri is living in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia."

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir, however, has denied reports that Mr Hariri was being forced to stay in the kingdom, saying that he resigned of his own accord and could leave whenever he wanted.

Mr Hariri resigned on November 4 from Riyadh, citing fear of assassination and sharply criticising Iranian influence in Lebanon and the Arab world.

The US on Saturday urged all parties to respect Lebanon’s sovereignty as it deals with the ongoing crisis following Mr Hariri’s exit.

"The United States calls upon all states and parties to respect Lebanon’s sovereignty, independence, and constitutional processes," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

The US considers Mr Hariri a "trusted partner", it said, and "firmly reiterates that the Lebanese Armed Forces and other Lebanese state security forces are the only legitimate security authorities in Lebanon”.

"In this sensitive time, the United States also rejects any efforts by militias within Lebanon or by any foreign forces to threaten Lebanon’s stability, undermine Lebanese government institutions, or use Lebanon as a base from which to threaten others in the region," it added.

The White House statement comes after an appeal issued on Friday by secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who is travelling in Asia with president Donald Trump. Mr Tillerson warned other countries against using Lebanon for proxy conflicts.

Mr Tillerson's message seemed aimed mainly at Iran and Hizbollah.

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Meanwhile, a spokesman told The National that they believe the kidnapped Saudi citizen was being held in the Baalbeck area, where a Lebanese soldiers was killed on Saturday by unidentified gunmen.

“While conducting a drug-related operation, the soldiers received information the kidnapped Saudi man was in the area,” he said.

The Saudi embassy in Beirut said it was in contact with Lebanese security authorities "at the highest level" to secure the citizen's "unconditional" release, the state-owned Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported on Friday, without providing further details.

The circumstances of his kidnap were unclear on Saturday. Lebanon's state National News Agency named him as Ali Al Bishrawi, 32, saying he had been lured from his home in the town of Adma, around six kilometres north of Jounieh in the Mount Lebanon governorate's Keserwan district, on Thursday night.

Saudi Arabia’s latest travel ban comes after Thamer Al Sabhan, the Saudi Gulf affairs minister, accused Lebanon of declaring war on the Gulf country because of aggression by Hizbollah.

Saudi Arabia issued a similar travel ban in early 2016 after cancelling more than US$4 billion (Dh15bn) in planned aid to the Lebanese military.

At the time, the kingdom criticised the Lebanese foreign minister’s refusal to endorse Arab League and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation statements condemning mob attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran in January 2016. Those attacks followed Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric convicted of terrorism charges.

In a push for a political solution as tension rise between Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Hizbollah, Egypt’s foreign minister Sameh Shoukry will embark on a Gulf tour.

Mr Shoukry, whose government is closely allied with Saudi Arabia, will carry a message from president Abdel Fattah El Sisi to the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman as well as Jordan during his three-day visit starting on Sunday.

* Additional reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse