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Nov 22, 2:53 AM EST

Returning PM attends Lebanon's military parade

AP Photo
AP Photo/Hussein Malla

BEIRUT (AP) -- Hours after returning to the country following a nearly three week absence, Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri participated in Independence Day celebrations Wednesday, his first official appearance since he suddenly announced his resignation from abroad, stunning the country.

Hariri's resignation on Nov. 4 was not accepted by President Michel Aoun, who said he wanted to hear from Hariri in person first.

Hariri's televised resignation from Saudi Arabia had sparked a political and diplomatic crisis as Lebanese officials accused the Gulf kingdom, which is feuding with Iran for influence in the region, of forcing him to resign and detaining him for days.

Hariri has been silent since, and Lebanese are hoping his arrival in Lebanon will help clear up the mysterious circumstances surrounding his resignation.

His resignation set off international efforts, led by France, to prevent the upending of the country's delicate sectarian-based political order.

On Wednesday, Hariri appeared on the grandstand with Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri in his first official appearance. Even if his resignation is accepted, Hariri would still be care-taker prime minister until a new government is formed.

Hariri cracked a smile after a small chat with Aoun as they reviewed the troops. In previous appearances since his resignation, Hariri looked mostly tense, tired or sad.

Hariri is expected to meet with Aoun and the parliament speaker privately after the parade. He later meets with supporters at his residence in the city center.

Posters have been erected around Beirut and other cities welcoming Hariri's return.

Lebanon is rife with speculations about what decision Hariri is expected to make: whether to stay in the government, insist on his resignation or make new demands to stay in office in a coalition government.

In his televised resignation from Saudi Arabia, Hariri said he was protesting meddling in Arab affairs by Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah. Hezbollah is a partner in the coalition government formed by Hariri a year ago.

The resignation pushed Lebanon back to the forefront of an intensifying regional feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which until recently appeared to have a tacit agreement to keep Lebanon out of their race for influence.

His announcement was followed by sharp Saudi rhetoric against Hezbollah, which the kingdom accuses of meddling on Iran's behalf in regional affairs.

Hezbollah has been fighting on the side of Syrian President Bashar Assad in that country's six-year civil war, where many of Assad's enemies are rebels backed by Saudi Arabia. The kingdom says Hezbollah is also advising Houthi rebels waging a war against Yemen's Saudi-backed government. Hezbollah denies it is militarily supporting the Houthis.

Hezbollah says Saudi Arabia is sowing instability in Lebanon, and accused the kingdom of partnering with Israel to start a war with Lebanon.

Hariri, in his only in depth interview since announcing his resignation, told his media station Future TV that he could retract his resignation if a deal could be struck with his opponents to distance Lebanon from regional conflicts.

At France's invitation, Hariri left Saudi Arabia to Paris on Saturday. He then traveled to Beirut on Tuesday, stopping first in Cairo and Cyprus for visits with the two countries' presidents.

In Cairo, Hariri said he had a long chat with Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi "about the stability of Lebanon and on the need for us as Lebanese to keep our distance from regional issues."

El-Sissi and French President Emmanuel Macron are reportedly trying to mediate a solution that would involve rolling back Hariri's resignation.

Upon arriving in Beirut, Hariri went straight from the airport to pray at the grave of his father, the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, assassinated in 2005. He then retired to his home in central Beirut.

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