Former prime minister Saad al-Hariri back in Lebanon after announcing Saudi military aid

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 August, 2014, 10:27pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 August, 2014, 7:33am

Former Lebanese prime minister Saad al-Hariri returned home yesterday for the first time in three years, on a visit seen as reasserting his leadership over the Sunni community following a deadly incursion by Islamist militants in northeast Lebanon.

Hariri, Lebanon's most influential Sunni politician, has been in self-imposed exile since 2011, sharing his time between France and Saudi Arabia.

He left Lebanon after his government was toppled by a coalition including the Iranian-backed Shiite group Hezbollah.

With no prior announcement, Hariri arrived at the Lebanese government's headquarters, where he met prime minister Tammam Salam. Hariri earlier this week announced that Saudi Arabia would donate US$1 billion in military aid to Lebanese security forces to help them in the fight against extremists.

"My return comes after the Saudi donation which requires seeing how it can be implemented and translated into support for the army," Hariri said on his Twitter account. The Twitter account also said Hariri's first stop would be at the grave of his father, Rafik al-Hariri, another former prime minister whose assassination in 2005 forced Saad into politics.

Hariri blames Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the bomb attack in Beirut that killed his father. A special tribunal in the Netherlands has been trying four members of Hezbollah in absentia for the killing. The group, an ally of Assad, denies any involvement.

Hariri's visit follows a deadly incursion by Islamist militants who crossed from Syria and seized the Sunni town of Arsal in the northeast last Saturday.

The gunmen withdrew from the town on Wednesday after five days of battles with the army.

The incursion by militants, including fighters affiliated to the Islamic State, which has seized large areas of Iraq and Syria, marked the most serious spillover to date of the three-year-old Syrian conflict.

Rocket fire, suicide attacks and gun battles connected to Syria's war have plagued Lebanon, and the conflict has worsened the perennial political deadlock in the country.

"There has been … a vacuum … in the Sunni community. This was becoming increasingly dangerous because [it] was becoming more and more radicalised," said Michael Young, a political commentator. "[Hariri's] return is probably an effort with the Saudis to reassert … control over the Sunni community."