BEIRUT • Former Lebanese prime minister Saad al-Hariri dismissed speculation that he was being held against his will in Saudi Arabia, and said he plans to return home within days.
In an interview with his party's Future TV channel from his home in Riyadh, Mr Hariri - in his first public comments since his surprise Nov 4 resignation - said he will resign officially when he goes back to Beirut. But he also left open the possibility that he may return to office if Lebanon is committed to staying neutral in regional conflicts.
At stake, he said, was the risk of economic sanctions by Arab countries if Hizbollah - the powerful militant group backed by Iran - continued to side with Teheran against Saudi Arabia.
Lebanon, one of the world's most indebted countries, relies on remittances from citizens working abroad to keep the banking system stable, and maintain the currency's US dollar peg.
"There are between 300,000 and 400,000 Lebanese living and working in the Gulf, and others living in Europe," Mr Hariri said. "If we place ourselves in axes, what will happen to these Lebanese?"
Indicating that he was open to rescinding his resignation, he said: "If we want to revoke the resignation, we should respect neutrality and withdraw from regional interference," he said, in a reference to Hizbollah. "We cannot have any more ambiguity around Lebanon's neutrality."
Mr Ibrahim Kanaan, a lawmaker from the Free Patriotic Movement - a rival of Mr Hariri's Future group - in a Twitter post after the interview, said Mr Hariri's return was "key to all political options and constitutional solutions".
About the crisis
Q How did the crisis start?
A It began when Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri unexpectedly resigned on Nov 4, saying in a televised speech from Saudi Arabia that he feared assassination and accusing Iran and the Hizbollah militant group of destabilising the country and the region.
Hizbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said last Friday that Mr Hariri was "detained in Saudi Arabia, he is banned from returning to Lebanon". Saudi Arabia, denying that Mr Hariri was being held against his will, accused Lebanon of declaring war against it.
Q Could there be a war?
A Analysts and officials in the region had been increasingly anxious about what they saw as a volatile combination: an impulsive Saudi leader in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman escalating threats to roll back growing Iranian influence, an equally impulsive Trump administration signalling broad agreement with Saudi policies, and increasingly pointed warnings from Israel that it may eventually fight another war with Hizbollah. Analysts say a new war is unlikely, but warned that the tensions could provoke an economic crisis or even start a war accidentally.
Q How has the world reacted?
A Western countries moved quickly to express their support for Mr Hariri, with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warning against the use of Lebanon as a venue for proxy conflicts.
France and Germany have also indicated they do not believe Mr Hariri has been detained by Saudi Arabia.
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Mr Hariri sought to dispel speculation that Saudi Arabia summoned him to Riyadh and broadsided him with a demand to resign because he would not confront Hizbollah - a charge the kingdom has denied.
"I am free in the kingdom," Mr Hariri said in the interview.
Speaking with the Lebanese flag in the background, he said he wrote his own resignation speech, and that he left office for the benefit of all Lebanese people.
After Mr Hariri indicated that he would return, Lebanese President Michel Aoun yesterday said the campaign waged by the country for the return of Mr Hariri has borne positive results.
Before Mr Hariri's interview, Mr Aoun had said the restrictions on Mr Hariri's freedom threw doubt on anything he had said or would say, and that his statements could not be considered a statement made of his own free will. Mr Aoun said Mr Hariri's remarks also showed that the political deal underpinning Lebanon's coalition government still stands, sources said.
Mr Aoun has been convening high-level meetings with Lebanese politicians and foreign diplomats since Mr Hariri stepped down. Mr Aoun had earlier refused to accept Mr Hariri's resignation unless he tendered it in person in Lebanon.
France's Foreign Ministry yesterday said Iran not interfering in Lebanon's domestic affairs was an important condition for the stability of the region.
"We wish that all those who exert an influence in Lebanon allow all the political actors in this country to exercise fully their responsibilities," French Foreign Ministry spokesman Agnes Romatet-Espagne told reporters at a daily briefing.
Iran responded yesterday by saying it does not interfere in Lebanon, and that Mr Hariri's comments gave hope that he would soon return to his country, state TV reported.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi said: "Hariri's remarks on Sunday gave small hope of the possibility of his return to Lebanon... Iran does not interfere in Lebanon's affairs."