Lebanon's Hariri must return home from Saudi to prove he is free - foreign minister

By John Irish
FILE PHOTO - Lebanese Foreign Minister and head of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) Gebran Bassil gestures to his supporters, during a rally to show support for FPM founder Michel Aoun and calling to elect a president, near the presidential palace in Baabda, near Beirut, Lebanon October 16, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

By John Irish

PARIS (Reuters) - Lebanon's Saad al-Hariri can only prove he is free by returning home from Saudi Arabia where he went to announce his resignation as prime minister, Lebanon's foreign minister said on Tuesday.

Hariri's abrupt resignation on Nov. 4 threw Lebanon into crisis and put it centre stage in a power struggle between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran, whose ally Hezbollah is powerful in Lebanese politics.

Hariri said on Tuesday he would return to Lebanon within two days.

"We hope to resolve this with the quick and immediate return of Prime Minister Hariri to his country ... where he has the right to do what he wants," Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said after meeting French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris.

"The only thing that proves he is free is that he returns. Right now he is in a situation that is ambiguous and not normal. We want to return to a normal situation," he told reporters after the talks about how to end the crisis.

France is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and Lebanon's former colonial power. It is also penholder on Lebanon for potential resolutions. There has been some talk that Beirut could go to the U.N. if Hariri did not return this week.

"The president (Michel Aoun) spoke of a timeframe of one week from when this diplomatic campaign started to try to find a solution otherwise we would have to go to international laws," he said.

French officials say there is no U.N. action in the works at the moment.

Lebanese politicians and bankers say Saudi Arabia intends to do to their country what it did to Qatar - corral Arab allies into enforcing an economic blockade unless its demands are met.

Bassil said any Saudi sanctions on his country would hurt Syrian refugees and destabilise the region.

"Any (Saudi) measures would not only be targeting Lebanon and its stability, this would be a punishment for the region because any instability in Lebanon would cause instability in the region," he said.

"The first to be affected in this would be Syrians in Lebanon," he said, adding that sanctions could make it harder for Lebanese population to absorb the Syrian refugees in their midst.

Lebanon hosts some 1.5 million Syrian refugees that have fled the neighbouring civil war.

In the first such statement by a French official, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Tuesday called on Hariri to return to Lebanon. Foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is due in the Saudi capital Riyadh on Wednesday to discuss the crisis and is expected to meet Hariri.


(Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)