Saudi accuses Hezbollah of ‘hijacking Lebanese banks’

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SAUDI Arabia’s foreign minister last Friday accused Hezbollah, which Riyadh blames for the shock resignation of Lebanese premier Saad Hariri, of holding Lebanon hostage and using its banks to launder money.

Adel al-Jubeir told reporters in Madrid that the Shiite group was destabilising Lebanon by maintaining its arsenal and fighters in the Mediterranean nation. ‘You cannot have a militia with a military force that operates outside the scope of the government,’ he told reporters after talks with Spanish counterpart Alfonso Dastis.

‘We see Hezbollah hijacking the Lebanese banking system to launder money, we see Hezbollah hijacking Lebanese ports in order to smuggle drugs, we see Hezbollah engaging in terrorist activities and interfering in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen,’ he added.

‘Unless Hezbollah disarms and becomes a (solely) political party, Lebanon will be held hostage by Hezbollah and by extension Iran,’ he said. ‘This is not acceptable to us and is not acceptable to the Lebanese.’

Lebanon, long abused by regional powers seeking to exert influence, was plunged into uncertainty this month after Hariri’s shock resignation, announced on television from Riyadh. Hariri said he was stepping down because of Hezbollah and Iran’s ‘grip’ over his country.

The resignation – which caught even some of Hariri’s closest advisers off guard – comes at a time of mounting tension between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are backing opposing sides in conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

His subsequent failure to return home to officially quit in person fuelled claims that he was acting under orders from his Saudi patrons. But both Hariri and Riyadh have denied allegations he was being held against his will, with the Lebanese leader on Friday dismissing all speculation about his situation as ‘rumours’.

‘We are supportive of Prime Minister Saad Hariri but we are against Hezbollah’s takeover of Lebanon,’ Jubeir said. Hariri was expected to leave Saudi Arabia for France, a move aimed at defusing political turmoil sparked by his resignation.

Meanwhile, Syrian Government forces, and their allies have retaken the last IS urban stronghold in Syria after fierce jihadist resistance involving the use of explosives and suicide bombers.

The Syrian army and loyalist militiamen on Sunday had full control of Albu Kamal ousting the jihadists.

Albu Kamal has changed hands several times, with government forces announcing the capture of the town near the Iraqi border earlier this month but losing it to a blistering IS counter-attack a week ago. ‘Syrian troops and allied forces took full control of Albu Kamal, and are removing mines and explosives left by IS,’ military officials in Deir Ezzor said on Sunday. ‘IS put up fierce resistance and tried to use explosives and suicide bombers, but besieging the city allowed the army to clinch the offensive and take full control of the city,’ the officials added.

State news agency SANA also reported the advance in Albu Kamal, saying the ‘Syrian army and its allies eliminated the last Daesh (IS) terrorist pocket in the town.’ A string of territorial defeats across northern and eastern Syria had left Albu Kamal as the last significant Syrian town held by IS. Syria’s army announced on November 9 it had ousted IS from the town, but the jihadists launched a lightning offensive and retook it.

A week later, the army and allied Iraqi, Lebanese, and Iranian fighters broke back into Albu Kamal and steadily advanced through the town. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed on Sunday that Syrian troops and their allies had captured Albu Kamal. ‘IS fighters withdrew from the city towards the Euphrates River,’ Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.

‘There is no more fighting in the town, but there are clashes around Albu Kamal,’ he said. The monitor said more than 80 fighters were killed in the three days of ferocious push to retake the town, including 31 pro-regime forces and at least 50 IS jihadists. IS seized large areas of both Syria and neighbouring Iraq in a lightning 2014 campaign, but this year has lost much of the territory it once held. The loss of Albu Kamal caps the group’s reversion to an underground guerrilla organisation with no urban base.

• Lebanon’s foreign minister did not attend an extraordinary Arab League meeting on Sunday called by Saudi Arabia to discuss ‘violations’ committed by Iran, a ministry source said. Arab foreign ministers gathered in Cairo on Sunday at the request of Riyadh, whose simmering regional rivalry with Tehran has escalated in recent weeks. But Lebanon’s top diplomat Gebran Bassil was not among them, a foreign ministry source said.

‘This morning, a decision was taken that Lebanon would be presented by Antoine Azzam, the permanent representative to the Arab League,’ an official said. ‘Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil will not be present.’

For more than a decade, Lebanon’s political class has been largely split between Iran-backed movement Hezbollah and its allies, and a Saudi-supported coalition led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hariri stepped down from his post on November 4 in a televised address from Riyadh, sparking fears Lebanon would be caught up in the spiralling tensions between Riyadh and Tehran.

Sunni Muslim powerhouse Saudi Arabia and Iran, the predominant Shiite power, are long-standing rivals based as much in geostrategic interests as religious differences. According to a memo, the Saudi request for an Arab League meeting was based on a missile it says its air defences intercepted near Riyadh after being fired from Yemen on November 4.

A Saudi-led coalition has been battling Shiite Huthi rebels in Yemen, and it has accused the Iran-backed rebels of firing the missile. Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman later accused Iran of ‘direct military aggression’ against the kingdom by supplying the rebels with ballistic missiles.

• Israel’s cabinet voted on Sunday to close a migrant detention centre, as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced an agreement to deport 40,000 Africans who entered the country illegally. Ministers unanimously approved plans to shutter the Holot centre in southern Israel and gave migrants a three-month deadline to leave the country or face deportation, said the interior and public security ministries.

‘The infiltrators will have the option to be imprisoned or leave the country,’ the public security ministry said in a statement. Israeli official figures from June 30 show a total of 38,043 African migrants in the country. They include 27,494 Eritreans and 7,869 Sudanese, and their presence in south Tel Aviv has raised discontent among Israelis there and elsewhere.

Speaking ahead of Sunday’s vote, Netanyahu noted that after building a fence on the Egyptian border and deporting some 20,000 African migrants through various deals, Israel has reached the third stage of its efforts – ‘accelerated removal’.

‘This removal is taking place thanks to an international agreement I reached that enables us to remove the 40,000 infiltrators remaining, remove them without their consent,’ he told ministers.‘This will enable us to close down Holot and allocate some of the large funds going there to inspectors and removing more people,’ said Netanyahu.

Holot, an open facility in the desert that can host 1,200 migrants who are allowed to leave to work during the day, would be closed three months from December 16, according to the decision. A public security ministry spokesman said an extension to that deadline would be set if necessary.

Ahead of the vote, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said Holot had become ‘a hotel for infiltrators at the tax-payers’ expense that does not encourage their exit’ and costs 240 million shekels ($68 million, 58 million euros) a year. In a Twitter statement, Erdan however stressed the closure of Holot was conditioned on ‘us seeing that the policy of removing infiltrators to a third country was indeed taking place.’

Neither Erdan nor Netanyahu gave details about the deal and the third country. Israel tacitly recognises the Sudanese and Eritreans cannot be returned to their dangerous homelands, so it has signed deals with Rwanda and Uganda, which agree to accept departing migrants on condition they consent to the arrangement, according to activists.