BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon's Future Movement party of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who resigned from Saudi Arabia under mysterious circumstances five days ago, demanded on Thursday that he return from the kingdom immediately.
Riyadh, meanwhile, ordered all Saudi citizens out of Lebanon — its first concrete action against the Mediterranean country after days of leveling threats against Beirut. A brief statement carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency called on all Saudis living in or visiting Lebanon to depart "immediately," and warned against travel to the country.
Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir warned earlier this week that his government would "deal with" Lebanon as a hostile state as long as the militant group Hezbollah was in the Lebanese government. He said Hezbollah's participation in government is an "act of war" against Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia sees Hezbollah as a proxy of Iran amid a spiraling rivalry between the two regional Sunni and Shiite heavyweights.
Hariri left Lebanon last week for a trip to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab region and shocked the country by announcing his resignation on Saturday. Even close associates in his party, the Saudi-aligned Future Movement, have been uncertain why he resigned or when he would return.
On Thursday, the party delivered its sharpest statement yet over his leave of absence.
"The return of the Lebanese prime minister, the national leader, Saad Hariri, and the head of the Future Movement, is necessary to restore the dignity and respect to Lebanon at home and abroad," said a former premier, Fouad Saniora, in a statement read on TV. Saniora heads the party's bloc in parliament.
Hariri is known to have left the kingdom just once since announcing his resignation, on a brief trip to the United Arab Emirates, before returning to Riyadh.
His resignation remains shrouded in mystery. In his televised statement, he said Lebanon had been taken hostage by Hezbollah — even though he formed a coalition government with the group, which has a substantial representation in Parliament, less than one year ago.
Hezbollah's leader and one of Lebanon's most powerful figures, Hassan Nasrallah, has speculated openly that Hariri was being held against his will in the kingdom and even said that it appeared as if Saudi Arabia forced the resignation.
The Future Movement statement suggested the party was moving toward the same conclusion.
Hezbollah has called on Saudi Arabia to stay out of Lebanese affairs, saying Hariri's resignation from Riyadh "raised many questions." The group's parliamentary bloc said Saudi Arabia was mired in crisis after the failure of its two-and-a-half-year military intervention in Yemen, which has led to a military stalemate.
Hezbollah has been represented in Lebanon's parliament since 1992. Its armed wing has an arsenal that rivals that of Lebanon's army, and its fighters are aligned against Saudi-backed rebels in the civil war in neighboring Syria.