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Ex-PM Hariri returns to Lebanon amid extremist crisis

After three years of self-imposed exile, former premier Saad Hariri has returned to Lebanon amid intensified fighting with militants on the Syrian border
Hariri (Center R) shake hands with Prime Minister of Lebanon Tammam Salam in Beirut (AA)

Former premier Saad Hariri arrived back in Lebanon on Friday after three years in self-imposed exile, and went straight into a meeting with current Prime Minister Tammam Salam, his office said.

Upon his arrival, Hariri met with Salam at the cabinet headquarters in Beirut, a source close to Hariri told Anadolu Agency correspondent.

The source also said that Hariri might perform Friday prayers in a central Beirut mosque located near the mausoleum of his father, former premier Rafiq Hariri, who was assassinated in a February 2005 bombing in the Lebanese capital.

Hariri, who had fled to Paris following his government's overthrow in January 2011, has repeatedly expressed intention to return to Lebanon on condition that he is given political guarantees, especially from the Shiite Hezbollah movement, that his life will not be threatened.

The surprise return home by Hariri, the country's most prominent Sunni leader, comes after he announced on Wednesday that Saudi King Abdullah had promised him Riyadh would provide Lebanon with $1 billion to fight extremists on the Syrian border.

Hariri's trip comes at a key moment for Lebanese Sunnis, who comprise about a third of the population of a country where Sunnis generally support the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad in neighbouring Syria.

Lebanese Shiites, among them the powerful Hezbollah group, support Assad's government.

Hariri, an early supporter of moderate rebels in Syria, opposes extremists who have become stronger in Syria and also have a presence in Lebanon, mainly in the northern port of Tripoli, Sidon in the south and the Bekaa valley in the east.

On Saturday, clashes erupted for the first time between extremists from Syria and Lebanese forces in Arsal, a pro-rebel Sunni stronghold near the border with Syria.

Hariri, 44, has constantly voiced his unconditional support for the Lebanese army, calling it a "red line" not to be crossed.

However, some Sunnis criticise the army, accusing it of playing into the hands of Hezbollah which is also battling the rebels in Syria, exacerbating tensions between the two communities in Lebanon.

Hariri left the country in 2011 a few months after his government collapsed following the resignation of ministers from Hezbollah, his main political rival.

Saudi gives $1bn as Lebanon seeks arms to battle militants 

Saudi Arabia has given Lebanon's military $1 billion to help its fight against militants on the Syrian border, as the army's chief urged France to speed up promised weapons supplies.

King Abdullah "has informed me of his generous decision to provide the Lebanese army... with $1 billion to strengthen its capabilities to preserve Lebanon's security," former Lebanese premier Saad Hariri told reporters in Jeddah on Wednesday.

Speaking from King Abdullah's palace in the Saudi Red Sea city, Harriri - the Lebanese Sunni community's most prominent political representative - added that "we have received this aid".

"This aid is very important especially at this time when Lebanon is fighting terrorism," said Hariri at the overnight conference.

Sunni-dominated regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia is already financing a $3 billion package of French military equipment and arms for Lebanon's army.

France said it would respond "quickly" to Lebanon's request to expedite weaponry. 

Army enters Arsal

Meanwhile, Lebanese troops started to enter the border town of Arsal, a military source told AFP on Friday.

"We have started to enter, we've set up a checkpoint on the western side of the city, and we're advancing bit-by-bit," the source said.

"We haven't entered all of the town yet, so we can't say if the gunmen have completely withdrawn," he added.

Municipal council member Wafiq Khalaf confirmed that troops were entering the edge of the town, but had not yet spread throughout.

"They are entering from the outskirts, the situation is quiet. There is no shooting or fighting," he told AFP.

The army advance comes after a truce that saw many of the militants who entered the town on Saturday withdraw to the surrounding mountains.

The militants, from several groups fighting in Syria, attacked army and police posts in the area in eastern Lebanon on Saturday afternoon after the arrest of a man accused of belonging to Al-Qaeda's Syrian branch Al-Nusra Front.

A group of Sunni clerics negotiated a truce under which the militants were to withdraw and release some 19 soldiers and 17 policemen who were taken hostage during the fighting.