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Saudi Arabia calls for Hezbollah to disarm as Hariri talks of return to Lebanon

Adel al-Jubeir condemned Hezbollah as a 'first class terrorist organisation' destabilising Lebanese politics
Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir attends a joint news conference with France's foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in Riyadh (Reuters)

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister has called for Lebanon's Hezbollah to be disarmed and denied that the country's prime minister was being held against his will in the kingdom.

Saad Hariri, who announced his shock resignation from Saudi Arabia on 4 November, is remaining in the kingdom "of his own free will" and free to leave "when he pleases", according to the foreign minister.

Hezbollah has kidnapped the Lebanese system

- Saudi FM, Adel al-Jubeir

"These are false allegations. The accusation that Saudi Arabia is detaining a prime minister, and particularly a political figure who is an ally... is untrue," Adel al-Jubeir said, speaking at a press conference in Riyadh.

Hariri cited the influence of Iran and their Lebanese benefactor Hezbollah on the country's politics as the primary reason for his resignation.

On Thursday, Jubeir accused Hezbollah of trying to destabilise the region and said they must be disarmed.

He said Hezbollah is a "first class terrorist organisation" and said that "consultations and coordination between peace-loving countries and Lebanon-loving countries are underway to try to find a way that would restore sovereignty to Lebanon and reduce the negative action which Hezbollah is conducting in Lebanon.”

"Hezbollah has kidnapped the Lebanese system," he added.

Lebanon's president said on Thursday that he hoped the crisis surrounding Hariri's resignation was near its end after Hariri said he would travel to France.

French president Emmanuel Macron has invited Hariri and his family to France, providing a diplomatic way out for him to leave Saudi Arabia without any side losing face.

Hariri to leave in 48 hours

Lebanese president Michel Aoun said earlier this week that Hariri, who abruptly announced his resignation while in Riyadh, was being held hostage by Saudi Arabia.

The crisis has embroiled Lebanon in the Middle East's bitter rivalry that pits Saudi Arabia and its allies against a bloc led by Iran that includes the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah group.

"We hope the crisis is over and the door of solution is opened by PM Hariri's acceptance of the invitation to visit France," Aoun said in a tweet on Thursday.

"The problem of Hariri's being held in Saudi Arabia is on its way to being solved," presidential sources additionally quoted Aoun as saying.

A source close to Hariri said he was expected to leave Riyadh with his family for Paris in the next 48 hours, before travelling on to Beirut. A French diplomatic source said his arrival time in Paris was not yet known.

Saudi Arabia last week accused Lebanon of declaring war on it, citing Hezbollah's role in other Arab countries. The group has fought alongside Iran in Syria against Saudi-backed rebels. Riyadh also accuses it of helping the Houthi group in Yemen fight a Saudi-led coalition.

Poster in Beirut depicting Lebanon's Saad Hariri, who resigned as prime minister on 4 November (AFP)

Hariri has long been allied to Saudi Arabia. He travelled there on 3 November and suddenly resigned the following day. He has since left Riyadh only for an hours-long visit to Saudi Arabia's Gulf ally the UAE on 7 November.

His resignation while abroad, alleging a plot against his life and railing against Iran and Hezbollah, led to speculation in Beirut about Saudi Arabia's role in the decision.

Top Lebanese officials and senior politicians close to Hariri say he was forced to quit and was being held by the Saudis. Politicians from all sides in Lebanon have called for his return to Beirut.

Saudi Arabia has denied forcing him to resign or detaining him. Hariri has said he is free to leave and would return soon to formally submit his resignation, which Aoun has said he will accept only in person.

While Riyadh has accused the Lebanese state of hostility, Western states have taken a markedly different tone, stressing their support for both Hariri and the Beirut government even though they see Hezbollah as a terrorist group. Lebanon's army is a significant recipient of US military aid.

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In an interview on Sunday, his first public comments since resigning, Hariri warned of possible Saudi action against Lebanon, including the risk of Arab sanctions and threats to the livelihood of Lebanese workers in the Gulf.

Lebanese foreign minister Gebran Bassil has toured European capitals to find diplomatic help for finding a way out of the crisis.

French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Wednesday and will meet Hariri on Thursday.

He said France was working to normalise the situation in Lebanon. 

France is closely allied to both Saudi Arabia and to Lebanon, which it controlled between the world wars last century. Hariri has a home in Paris and lived there for years.