BEIRUT (AP) – Dozens of citizens of Gulf Arab countries began leaving Lebanon on Friday after their governments ordered them out of the Mediterranean country, as the president called for the return of Lebanon’s prime minister who mysteriously resigned from the Saudi capital last week.
The manner in which Saad Hariri resigned – was “unacceptable,” a Lebanese official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
This was conveyed by Lebanese President Michel Aoun to the Saudi charge d’affaires in Lebanon, Walid al-Bukhari, at the presidential palace on Friday, the official said.
Hariri shocked his country last Saturday when he announced in a televised statement from Saudi Arabia that he was resigning. The unexpected move has thrown the tiny nation in turmoil and led to rumors that he is being held in Saudi Arabia against his will.
President Aoun has refused to accept Hariri’s resignation before he returns to the country and explains the circumstances of his decision to step down, which effectively shattered a year-old coalition government in Lebanon. Aoun met with foreign ambassadors, including al-Bukhari, on Friday to discuss the resignation and his next moves.
Meanwhile, a French official in President Emmanuel Macron’s office said Hariri has told foreign ambassadors that he is not a prisoner in Saudi Arabia, where he has been holed up since the unusual resignation.
The French and U.S. ambassadors in Saudi Arabia met with Hariri, and Hariri “says he is not a prisoner, the (Saudi crown) prince says he is not a prisoner,” said the official.
Macron paid a surprise visit to Saudi Arabia on Thursday night and met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for talks about the rising tensions between the kingdom and Lebanon, a former French protectorate.
The official said Hariri did not ask to see Macron during the visit and that French officials “don’t have any specific signs” that the Lebanese prime minister’s life is in danger. The official was not authorized to be publicly named according to presidential policy.
Also Friday, France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Europe-1 radio that “to our knowledge,” Hariri is not being held. Le Drian noted Hariri’s trip from Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates and back earlier this week, adding that France thinks “he is free in his movements, and it is up to him to make his choices.”
Hariri, who cited Iran’s and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah’s meddling in the region in his resignation speech, has not returned to Lebanon or made contact with Lebanese officials since then.
Saudi Arabia sees Hezbollah as an extension of Iran amid a spiraling rivalry between the two regional Sunni and Shiite heavyweights, and is demanding that a new Lebanese government be formed without Hezbollah members in it.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubair has protested what he said was Hezbollah “hijacking the Lebanese state.”
On Thursday, Hariri’s Future Movement party delivered its sharpest rebuke yet over Hariri’s absence, demanding that he be returned home immediately – reflecting its belief that he is being held by the Saudis against his will.
Dozens of men, women and children from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain were seen leaving Lebanon on Friday morning through Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport, after Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates ordered their citizens to leave the country.
The move was the first concrete action against Lebanon after days of Saudi government officials leveling threats against Beirut.
Corbet reported from Paris. Associated Press writer Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.