Hezbollah's leader says Saudi Arabia has declared war on Lebanon and his Iran-backed group, accusing Riyadh of detaining Saad al-Hariri and forcing him to resign as Lebanon's prime minister to destabilise the country.
- Riyadh said Mr Hariri is a free man and he decided to resign on his own will
- Tillerson warned the region against using Lebanon as proxy for conflict
- President Michel Aoun told Saudi Arabia's envoy that Mr Hariri must return to Lebanon
Mr Hariri's resignation has plunged Lebanon into crisis, thrusting the small Arab country back to the forefront of regional rivalry between the Sunni Muslim monarchy Saudi Arabia and Shiite revolutionary Islamist Iran.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said Saudi Arabia's detention of Mr Hariri, a long-time Saudi ally who declared his resignation while in Riyadh last Saturday, was an insult and that he must return to Lebanon.
"Let us say things as they are: the man is detained in Saudi Arabia and forbidden until this moment from returning to Lebanon," Mr Nasrallah said in a televised speech.
"It is clear that Saudi Arabia and Saudi officials have declared war on Lebanon and on Hezbollah in Lebanon."
His comments mirror an accusation by Riyadh on Monday that Lebanon and Hezbollah had declared war on the conservative Gulf Arab kingdom.
Riyadh has said Mr Hariri is a free man and that he decided to resign because Hezbollah was calling the shots in his government.
Saudi Arabia considers Hezbollah to be its enemy in conflicts across the Middle East, including Syria and Yemen.
Western countries have looked on with alarm at the rising regional tension.
Region warned against using Lebanon as proxy for conflict
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned other countries and groups against using Lebanon as vehicle for a larger proxy fight in the Middle East, saying Washington strongly backed Lebanon's independence and respected Mr Hariri as a strong partner of the United States, referring to him as prime minister.
"There is no legitimate place or role in Lebanon for any foreign forces, militias or armed elements other than the legitimate security forces of the Lebanese state," Mr Tillerson said in a statement released by the US State Department.
The French foreign ministry said it wanted Mr Hariri to be fully able to play what it called his essential role in Lebanon.
Mr Hariri has made no public remarks since announcing his resignation in a speech televised from Saudi Arabia, saying he feared assassination and accusing Iran and Hezbollah of sowing strife in the Arab world.
Two top Lebanese Government officials, a senior politician close to Mr Hariri and a fourth source, said the Lebanese authorities believed Mr Hariri was being held in Saudi Arabia.
Mr Nasrallah said Saudi Arabia was encouraging Israel to attack Lebanon. While an Israeli attack could not be ruled out entirely, he said, it was unlikely partly because Israel knew it would pay a very high price.
"I warn them against any miscalculation or any step to exploit the situation," he said.
"Saudi will fail in Lebanon as it has failed on all fronts," Mr Nasrallah said.
Riyadh has advised Saudi citizens not to travel to Lebanon, or if already there to leave as soon as possible.
Other Gulf states have also issued travel warnings. Those steps have raised concern that Riyadh could take measures against the tiny Arab state, which hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees.
President Aoun tells Saudi envoy Hariri must return
Mr Hariri's resignation unravelled a political deal among rival factions that made him prime minister and President Michel Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, head of state last year.
The coalition government included Hezbollah, a heavily armed military and political organisation.
Mr Hariri's resignation is being widely seen as part of a Saudi attempt to counter Iran as its influence deepens in Syria and Iraq and as Riyadh and its allies battle Iranian-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Mr Aoun told Saudi Arabia's envoy on Friday that Mr Hariri must return to Lebanon and the circumstances surrounding his resignation as prime minister while in Saudi Arabia were unacceptable, presidential sources said.
An "international support group" of countries concerned about Lebanon, which includes the United States, Russia and France, appealed for Lebanon "to continue to be shielded from tensions in the region".
In the first direct Western comment on Mr Hariri's status, France and Germany both said on Friday they did not believe Mr Hariri was being held against his will.
"Our concern is the stability of Lebanon and that a political solution can be put in place rapidly," French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Europe 1 radio.