BEIRUT : Lebanon’s leading Sunni politician Saad Hariri returned from self-imposed exile Friday on a trip to bolster the country’s army as it battles militants in the latest spillover from Syria’s war.
Hariri’s visit, his first since 2011, comes after open conflict between the army and militants on the border with Syria killed 17 troops and left 19 kidnapped.
The former prime minister arrived after announcing earlier that Saudi Arabia, one of his chief allies, had pledged $1 billion to shore up the army and security forces against militants.
On Wednesday, a day after announcing the funding, Hariri said he would consult with Lebanon’s Prime Minister Tammam Salam and the army and security forces on how they would be disbursed.
His arrival underscored the seriousness of the clashes in the Arsal region in eastern Lebanon on the Syrian border.
Fighting that began there on Saturday has eased, with a truce meant to lead to the withdrawal of gunmen from several militant groups fighting in Syria and the release of 17 policemen and 19 soldiers thought to be held hostage.
But the violence is the worst in the border region since the Syrian war began in March 2011, and has raised further concerns about the effects of the conflict on Lebanon.
Despite Beirut’s effort to insulate itself from the war next door, the fighting has spilled over and stoked existing political and sectarian tensions in Lebanon.
Much of Lebanon’s Sunni community, including Hariri, supports the Sunni-dominated uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
But many Lebanese Shiites support Assad, and the powerful Shiite Hezbollah movement has sent fighters to bolster his troops against the uprising.
Hariri, 44, has voiced unconditional support for Lebanon’s army in the fight against militants in Arsal, calling it a “red line”.
But some of his constituents accuse the army of allowing Hezbollah free rein to fight in Syria and failing to protect Sunnis.
On Friday, the situation in Arsal was largely quiet, but an AFP video journalist said several hundred residents who tried return to their homes were forced to flee after coming under sniper fire.
He said several were wounded and the army closed the route back into the town after the incident.
The fighting in Arsal began on Saturday afternoon, when gunmen attacked soldiers after the arrest of a Syrian man accused of belonging to Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Al-Nusra Front.
At least 17 soldiers have been killed, and 19 remain kidnapped along with 17 policemen.
Dozens of militants have been killed, and field hospitals have reported at least 47 deaths, with more than 250 wounded.
The fighting prompted army chief General Jean Kahwaji to urge France to speed up delivery of weapons being bought under a $3 billion deal financed by Saudi Arabia.
And Hariri announced on Wednesday that the kingdom had pledged $1 billion in funds to bolster the Lebanese security forces.
On Friday, Hariri said his stay in Lebanon would be “long”, and that the visit came “after the Saudi donation, which we must examine how to implement and translate in support of the army”.
Analysts said he would seek to rally the Sunni community around the army and bolster his standing in Lebanon, which he left in 2011 after his government collapsed when ministers from Hezbollah, his chief political rival, resigned.
“Hariri’s return can be seen as an attempt at unifying the Sunni community both around Lebanese state institutions, particularly the army, as well as around Saudi Arabia, which is now championing itself as a major counter-terrorism force in the region,” said Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre.
“Such a rallying of Sunnis would have a stabilising effect on the country and detach the Sunni community from being attracted to the extremism presented by groups” such as the Islamic State, she said.
Khatib added that Hariri was also “striving to regain a central political standing in Lebanon as the country looks forward to holding parliamentary and presidential elections”.
Hariri’s father, Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, was assassinated in a 2005 attack that his supporters blame on the Syrian regime and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.