Lebanon's Hariri set to leave Saudi Arabia for France
The Lebanese premier and his family are due to meet French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Saturday after allegations from Hariri's political rivals back home that he was essentially being held hostage by the Saudi authorities.
The announcement of the visit came after Hariri, 47, met French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in Riyadh on Thursday, with Lebanon's former colonial power Paris hoping to ease a crisis that has driven up tensions between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Hariri, a dual Saudi citizen, has been in Riyadh since issuing a statement on television there on November 4 that he was stepping down because he feared for his life while also accusing Iran and its Lebanese ally Hizballah of destabilising his nation.
The announcement - which reportedly took even some of Hariri's closest aides by surprise - and his subsequent failure to return home to officially quit in person, fuelled claims that he was acting under orders from his Saudi patrons.
Both Hariri and Riyadh have denied allegations he was being held against his will, with the Lebanese leader on Friday dismissing as "rumours" all speculation about his situation.
"My stay in the kingdom is aimed at conducting consultations on the future of Lebanon and its relations with its Arab neighbours," he wrote on Twitter.
Macron's office said the French leader would meet Hariri at noon on Saturday, with his family joining shortly afterwards for lunch.
'Start of a solution'
Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a Hizballah ally who had accused Saudi authorities of "detaining" Hariri and refused to accept his resignation from abroad, welcomed the news about the trip to Paris.
"We hope that the crisis is over and Hariri's acceptance of the invitation to go to France is the start of a solution," he said Thursday on the official presidential Twitter account.
"If Mr Hariri speaks from France, I would consider that he speaks freely, but his resignation must be presented in Lebanon, and he will have to remain there until the formation of the new government," Aoun said later in a statement issued by his office.
There is no indication what Hariri plans to do after visiting Macron, but the French leader had insisted he would then be free to return to Lebanon to either hand in or rethink his decision to quit.
France's intervention was the latest in a string of European efforts to defuse the tensions over Lebanon, where divisions between Sunni Hariri's bloc and Shia Hizballah have long been part of the broader struggle between Riyadh and Tehran.
Hariri - whose father Rafik was also prime minister and was killed in a car bombing in 2005 - became head of a shaky compromise government including Hezbollah last year.