Lebanese President Michel Aoun intensified the crisis sparked by Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s surprise resignation by directly and unambiguously accusing Saudi Arabia of taking him prisoner in an “act of aggression against Lebanon.”
“What happened wasn’t the resignation of a government, but an act of aggression against Lebanon, its independence and dignity, and against relations between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon,” Aoun said in a statement released on Wednesday.
“We do not accept that he remain hostage, and we do not know the reasons for his captivity,” the statement continued. “Nothing justifies Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s not returning to the country in 12 days. We therefore consider him detained and held captive, which violates the Vienna Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
“It is not possible for us to make a decision about this resignation from abroad. He should return to Lebanon and submit his resignation so that we may refer to it and probe its reasons and ways to solve it,” Aoun declared.
“I want to repeat and affirm that I am perfectly fine and I will return, god willing, to dear Lebanon as I promised you, you’ll see,” Hariri responded on Twitter Wednesday morning. On Tuesday evening, he said he would return to Lebanon within two days.
Hariri and the Saudi government have consistently denied he is being held against his will, a denial supported by several international visitors – ranging from foreign ambassadors to the Maronite Christian patriarch of Lebanon – who said Hariri is well and not under house arrest. Critics of Aoun’s apparent mindset claim Hariri is speaking under duress, telling interviewers and private visitors what the Saudis want him to say.
The Iranians, whom Hariri accused of plotting to assassinate him, claim it is “indisputable” that Hariri is held in “conditions similar to those of a captive,” and charge that even if he is allowed to return to Lebanon, his family will be held as hostages by the Saudis.
The office of French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday invited Hariri and his family to France, after consultations with both Hariri and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Macron stressed that this was not an offer of political exile. “I hope that Lebanon will be stable, and that political choices should be in accordance with institutional rule,” he told reporters. “We need a strong Lebanon with her territorial integrity respected. We need leaders who are free to make their own choices and speak freely.”
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe urged Hariri to return to Lebanon on Tuesday. “The goal is for Saad Hariri to be able to return home freely to clarify his situation in accordance with the Lebanese constitution. It’s also important that all Lebanese parties agree to respect civil peace,” he said.
This would seem somewhat inconsistent with Macron’s offer of a trip to France, unless the trip is envisioned as a brief one for Saad al-Hariri, perhaps with a longer stay for his family to demonstrate they are not being detained by the Saudis.