BEIRUT (AFP) – Saudi Arabia’s warning to its citizens to leave Lebanon, issued this weekend, was based on “specific threats” received by its embassy in Beirut, Lebanon’s acting foreign minister said Sunday.
“The Saudis have specific reasons. They have received specific threats,” Tareq Mitri told the private LBC television channel, though he did not elaborate.
Lebanese and Saudi officials on Saturday said Saudi Arabia was advising its citizens to leave Lebanon or exercise extreme caution because of heightened political unrest.
A Saudi diplomatic source told AFP that a number of Saudi families had already left.
The source said the car of a Saudi diplomat was hit by gunfire on Friday night in Beirut, but the occupants of the car escaped unharmed.
The incident occurred as supporters of opposition parliament speaker Nabih Berri fired into the air to celebrate a television interview that he was giving, the source said.
Last month Saudi Arabia had advised its citizens against travelling to Lebanon and in August 2007 threats against the embassy had forced Ambassador Abdel Aziz Khoja to leave the country, although he eventually returned.
Khoja had been involved in efforts to broker an end to the political rift between the Western-backed ruling parliamentary majority and the opposition, backed by Syria and Iran.
Fears of civil strife have mounted over a political crisis that has left Lebanon without a president since November and warnings of wider conflict after the February 12 killing in Syria of top Hezbollah commander Imad Mughnieh.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal warned last month that the country was “on the verge of civil war.”
Tensions have also risen in the past weeks as the Arab League, which is mediating a solution to the Lebanon crisis, has been trying to organise an annual Arab summit due to be hosted in Syria March 29-30.
Lebanon and ally Saudi Arabia have not yet received an invitation for the summit, and several Arab countries fear the summit could be scuppered if the Lebanese crisis is not resolved before the meeting.
A decision by Washington to send the USS Cole guided-missile destroyer to waters off Lebanon amid concerns of regional stability has also added to the tensions and triggered criticism by the two feuding camps in Lebanon.
“The Americans have tried to show their strength. We were not consulted and we will not explain their decision but we refuse to allow Lebanon to be an arena to solve regional differences,” Mitri said.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem on Saturday said the US deployment was an attempt to undermine a solution to Lebanon’s presidential crisis.