Lebanon runners race to show support for resigned PM Hariri

Participants running past a billboard bearing the picture of former PM Saad Hariri, during the Beirut marathon on Nov 12, 2017.
Participants running past a billboard bearing the picture of former PM Saad Hariri, during the Beirut marathon on Nov 12, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

BEIRUT (AFP) - Participants in Beirut's annual marathon usually run to support medical research or human rights. But this year, Lebanese racers have opted for another cause: their missing prime minister.

Saad Hariri has yet to return to Lebanon since his shock resignation in a televised announcement from Saudi Arabia eight days ago.

Rumours have since swirled that he is being held in Riyadh against his will - and energetic Lebanese literally raced to show him support on Sunday (Nov 12) morning.

A bright red billboard welcomed runners to the marathon's starting line in downtown Beirut with a picture of a sprinting Hariri and the Arabic caption, "We are all waiting for you."

Young men and women distributed water bottles labelled with the same slogan, as well as caps and t-shirts that read, "Running for you."

"I needed a cap and I like Lebanon, so I took a hat," said 30-year-old Nisrine Chamseddine, who had just completed an eight-km race.

Online, supporters tweeted pictures from the event with the Arabic hashtags "Run for Saad" and "Saad's coming back."

Hariri - who enjoys exercise, according to close friends - has taken part in the Beirut marathon in previous years.

But on Sunday morning, tens of thousands of runners gathered for the 15th year of the annual race without their prime minister.

Lebanese president Michel Aoun had urged participants to run for "the return of prime minister Saad Hariri to Lebanon."

"May the Beirut Marathon tomorrow be a national, athletic demonstration of solidarity with PM Hariri and with his return to his country," Aoun said on Saturday, according to a statement by his office.

He also called on Riyadh to "clarify the reasons that have prevented the return of PM Hariri to Lebanon to be among his people and supporters".

Aoun has yet to formally accept Hariri's resignation and has criticised the circumstances surrounding it as "unacceptable".

In his shock announcement, Hariri accused Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of taking over his country and destabilising the broader region, saying he feared for his life.

But his subsequent week-long absence from Lebanon has sparked concerns that the ex-premier - who also holds Saudi nationality - is under de facto house arrest in the kingdom.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said on Friday that Hariri was "detained in Saudi Arabia, he is banned from returning to Lebanon."