May 29, 2018 / 8:37 AM / 20 days ago

Saudi Arabia denies Macron's charge it held Lebanese PM captive

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry denied French President Emmanuel Macron’s assertion that the kingdom held Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri captive last November, official Saudi media reported on Tuesday.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri gestures during a conference to address the results of the Paris conference, in Beirut, Lebanon April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi/Files

In an interview with broadcaster BFM TV last week, Macron claimed credit for heading off war in Lebanon, which was plunged into crisis after Hariri resigned while in Saudi Arabia, saying he feared assassination and criticising the Saudis’ regional rival Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.

Sources close to Hariri have said Saudi Arabia had concluded that the prime minister, a long-time Saudi ally, had to go because he was unwilling to confront Hezbollah.

After international intervention, including by Macron, Hariri was able to leave the kingdom and eventually rescinded his resignation.

Lebanese officials accused the Saudis at the time of holding Hariri hostage. Riyadh, like Hariri, denied he was ever held against his will.

The Saudi Foreign Ministry statement on Tuesday called Macron’s comments “untrue” and said the kingdom would continue to support Lebanon’s stability and security.

“All the evidence confirms that what is pulling Lebanon and the region towards instability is Iran and its tools like the Hezbollah terrorist militia...” the statement said.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are locked in a decades-old struggle for regional influence, which plays out in armed conflicts and political disputes including in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

France had nurtured new links with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states in recent years due to its tough stance on Iran in nuclear negotiations, and the broad similarity of their policies on conflicts across the Middle East.

However, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s uncompromising efforts to counter Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East are sometimes perceived as reckless in Paris.

Macron dined with Hariri and Prince Mohammed in Paris in April after a conference to rally international support for an investment programme to boost the Lebanese economy.

Hariri, who visited Riyadh in February for the first time since the November crisis, is working to form a new coalition after a May 6 parliamentary election which strengthened his rival Hezbollah and its political allies.

They won just over half the seats in parliament, while Hariri lost over a third of his seats. Under Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system, though, he remains the frontrunner to form the next government.

Reporting By Stephen Kalin; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

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