Hezbollah’s leader said on Friday that Saudi Arabia had declared war on Lebanon and his Iran-backed group, accusing Riyadh of detaining Saad al-Hariri and forcing him to resign as Lebanon’s prime minister to destabilise the country.
Hariri’s resignation has plunged Lebanon into crisis, thrusting the small Arab country back to the forefront of regional rivalry between the Sunni Muslim monarchy Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite revolutionary Islamist Iran.
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said Saudi Arabia’s detention of Hariri, a long-time Saudi ally who declared his resignation while in Riyadh last Saturday, was an insult to all Lebanese and he must return to Lebanon.
“Let us say things as they are: the man is detained in Saudi Arabia and and forbidden until this moment from returning to Lebanon,” Nasrallah said in a televised speech.
“It is clear that Saudi Arabia and Saudi officials have declared war on Lebanon and on Hezbollah in Lebanon,” he said. His comments mirror an accusation by Riyadh on Monday that Lebanon and Hezbollah had declared war on the conservative Gulf Arab kingdom.
Riyadh says Hariri is a free man and he decided to resign because Hezbollah was calling the shots in his government. Saudi Arabia considers Hezbollah to be its enemy in conflicts across the Middle East, including Syria and Yemen.
Western countries have looked on with alarm at the rising regional tension.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned other countries and groups against using Lebanon as vehicle for a larger proxy fight in the Middle East, saying Washington strongly backed Lebanon’s independence and respected Hariri as a strong partner of the United States, referring to him as prime minister.
“There is no legitimate place or role in Lebanon for any foreign forces, militias or armed elements other than the legitimate security forces of the Lebanese state,” Tillerson said in a statement released by the US State Department.
The French foreign ministry said it wanted Hariri to be fully able to play what it called his essential role in Lebanon.
Hariri has made no public remarks since announcing his resignation in a speech televised from Saudi Arabia, saying he feared assassination and accusing Iran and Hezbollah of sowing strife in the Arab world.
Two top Lebanese government officials, a senior politician close to Hariri and a fourth source told Reuters on Thursday that the Lebanese authorities believe Hariri is being held in Saudi Arabia.
Nasrallah said Saudi Arabia was encouraging Israel to attack Lebanon. While an Israeli attack could not be ruled out entirely, he said, it was unlikely partly because Israel knew it would pay a very high price. “I warn them against any miscalculation or any step to exploit the situation,” he said.
“Saudi will fail in Lebanon as it has failed on all fronts,” Nasrallah said.
Riyadh has advised Saudi citizens not to travel to Lebanon, or if already there to leave as soon as possible. Other Gulf states have also issued travel warnings. Those steps have raised concern that Riyadh could take measures against the tiny Arab state, which hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees.