By ANGELA CHARLTON
PARIS (AP) — Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has accepted an invitation to come to France after his surprise resignation from Saudi Arabia nearly two weeks ago that stunned Lebanon and rattled the region, the French president’s office announced Thursday.
An official in President Emmanuel Macron’s office said Hariri is expected in France in the coming days. The official was not authorized to be publicly named.
Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun welcomed Hariri’s decision to accept the invite, saying he hoped it “opened the door for a resolution” of the crisis.
“I wait for the return of President (of the council of ministers) Hariri to decide the next move regarding the government,” Aoun said in comments during a meeting with journalists. They were published on his official Twitter account.
Aoun had refused to accept Hariri’s resignation and accused the Saudis of holding him against his will. In his strongest statements yet about the crisis, Aoun said Wednesday there was no reason for the prime minister not to return to Lebanon.
In Riyadh, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said the kingdom “rejected” allegations that it is holding Hariri against his will.
“The accusation that the kingdom would hold a prime minister or a former prime minister is not true, especially a political ally like President Saad Hariri,” al-Jubeir said during a press conference with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian who is visiting Saudi Arabia.
Le Drian is expected to meet with Hariri later.
“I don’t know the source of these accusations. But they are rejected and are baseless and untrue,” al-Jubeir said.
Al-Jubeir said Hariri is in Saudi Arabia according to his own will. “He leaves when he wants to,” he said.
Hariri is a dual Saudi-Lebanese citizen.
Hariri announced his resignation from Saudi Arabia nearly two weeks ago, citing concerns over the meddling of Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah in regional affairs. He also said he fears for his life.
Saudi Arabia is locked in a feud with Iran over regional influence. Both countries support different groups in Lebanon.
The resignation of Saudi-aligned Hariri was seen as engineered by Saudi Arabia and raised concerns that it would drag Lebanon, with its delicate sectarian-based political system, into the battle for regional supremacy.
Hezbollah accused the kingdom of seeking to sow chaos in Lebanon.
Al-Jubeir railed against Hezbollah, calling it a “first-class terrorist organization” that should lay down its arms and respect Lebanon’s sovereignty.
“Hezbollah has kidnapped the Lebanese system,” al-Jubeir said.
France, Lebanon’s onetime colonial ruler, has been trying to mediate the crisis. On Wednesday, Macron invited Hariri and his family to come to France, apparently as a way to put an end to allegations that the prime minister is being held against his will.
The announcement that Hariri will head to France came after Le Drian met with the Saudi crown prince and the Saudi king. He is expected to meet with Hariri on Thursday.
On Wednesday, the front page of the daily Lebanese Al-Akhbar boasted: “Saudi loses,’ hailing the French for their proposal to end the deadlock.
Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb and Zeina Karam in Beirut and Aya Batrawy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, contributed to this report.