RIYADH - Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was on Friday preparing to leave Saudi Arabia for France, a move aimed at defusing political turmoil sparked by his shock resignation in Riyadh.
The Lebanese premier is 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 met French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in Riyadh Thursday, with Lebanon's former colonial power Paris hoping to ease a crisis that has driven up tensions between regional titans 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 Hezbollah 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 speculation that he was acting under orders from his Saudi patrons.
Both Hariri and Riyadh denied claims he was being held against his will, with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir insisting he could leave the country "when he pleases".
Macron's office said the French leader would meet Hariri at noon on Saturday.
- 'Start of a solution' -
Lebanese President Michel Aoun, 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.
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 Shiite Hezbollah have long been part of the broader struggle between Riyadh and Tehran.
There is no indication what Hariri plans to do after visiting Paris, but Macron had insisted he would then be free to return to Lebanon to either hand in or rethink his decision to quit.
- Regional clash -
Hariri's resignation comes as temperatures have soared in the long-standing regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with Riyadh undergoing a major shake-up under ambitious Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
The two powers are backing opposing sides in the protracted wars in Yemen and Syria -- entangling them in a complex web of proxy conflicts.
France sparked ire from Tehran after Le Drian accused it of "hegemonic" ambitions in the region during his visit to Riyadh.
"France has a biased and partisan approach to the crises in the region and this approach, whether intentionally or not, is even contributing to turning potential crises into real ones," foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi said Friday.
Meanwhile mutual suspicion of Iran also appears to have pushed US allies Saudi Arabia and Israel closer together, despite the two countries having no official diplomatic ties.
In a rare interview with an Arabic-language outlet published Thursday, Israel military chief Gadi Eisenkot said his country was prepared to share information with Saudi Arabia to face Iran's plans "to control the Middle East."
Earlier both Hezbollah and Iran accused Saudi Arabia of pressing Israel to launch attacks in Lebanon.