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Who is the Saudi citizen kidnapped in Lebanon, rescued in army operation?

The kidnapping and swift rescue come at a time Lebanon is working to mend ties with Saudi Arabia.
A banner bearing the picture of former Lebanese premier Saad Hariri and a slogan in Arabic which reads "Allah, Hariri, Tariq al-Jdideh" and another depicting Saudi Arabia's King Salman (R) and his son Crown Prince Mohammed with a slogan "Beirut remains Arab despite the haters", hang on a street in the Tariq al-Jdideh neighbourhood of the capital Beirut, on April 27, 2022. - Lebanon's Sunni Muslim community is gearing up for May 15's parliamentary polls without strong leadership for the first time in decades

BEIRUT — A Saudi man kidnapped in Lebanon over the weekend was rescued in a military operation, Lebanon's armed forces announced on Tuesday.

In a statement published on Twitter, the Lebanese army said an intelligence unit carried out a “special operation” along the Lebanon-Syria border to find Saudi citizen Mashari al-Mutairi. It added that several people involved in the kidnapping were arrested.

Saudi Arabia’s state-run Al-Ekhbariya TV station reported on Monday that a Saudi national who works at the Beirut office of Saudi Arabian Airlines was kidnapped on Saturday night. The Saudi Embassy in Beirut confirmed the disappearance of the man, saying his family had lost contact with him on Sunday.

According to Al-Ekhbariya, a total of seven people, three of whom were wearing military uniforms, took Mutairi in a kidnapping involving two stolen cars. The station's correspondent in Beirut said she received information from security officials that the Saudi national was taken from the Biel area in the capital. He had just finished dinner when the kidnappers stopped him and took him with his car to the southern suburbs, the stronghold of the paramilitary Shiite Hezbollah group. The perpetrators used his personal phone to contact his family from the southern suburbs and asked for a $400,000 ransom.

Upon his rescue, Mutairi was taken to the Ministry of Defense in Beirut.

Hezbollah has not commented on the operation. Senior Shiite cleric Sheikh Ahmed Qabalan denounced the kidnapping, calling on the Lebanese state and its security services to end what he described as a dangerous game.

“What is happening is a game by gangs and mafias to destabilize the country for personal gain at a time the country is witnessing chaos,” he said in a statement.

Commenting on the case in separate statements, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and parliament speaker Nabih Berri hailed the army’s efforts to free the Saudi citizen.

Speaking at a press conference alongside caretaker Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi, Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Walid al-Bukhari expressed his appreciation for the army and security services for the prompt response and rescue of Mutairi.

Ties between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia have been strained amid the growing influence of Iran-backed Hezbollah. Tensions peaked in 2017, when the Gulf kingdom ordered its citizens to leave Lebanon. In 2021, Gulf countries including Saudi Arabia recalled their envoys over critical comments by a former Lebanese minister who was close to Hezbollah on the Yemen war and the Saudi-led coalition. The strained ties added to Lebanon’s economic woes as it has grappled since October 2019 with its worst financial crisis in decades. Saudi Arabia had been a major donor of Lebanon for years.

Jihad Azour, Christian parties candidate?

The small Mediterranean country has descended into chaos amid its financial collapse. The political elite, which has been ruling the country since the civil war ended in 1990, has repeatedly failed to address the economic and social crises. The presidential vacuum has entered its seventh month as the heavily divided parliament failed more than 10 times to elect a head of state.

According to local reports, the main Christian parties and the opposition have agreed to endorse the candidacy of Jihad Azour for president. According to the local al-Jadeed TV station, the Lebanese Forces, Free Patriotic Movement and Lebanese Phalanges (Kataeb) Party are expected to announce their support for Azour after a meeting on Tuesday.

Azour currently heads the Middle East and Central Asia Department at the International Monetary Fund (IMF). He holds a PhD in international finance from the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, according to his bio on the IMF website. He served as finance minister between 2005 and 2008, during which he implemented major economic reforms including the modernization of the tax and customs systems.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah, which holds great sway in Lebanon’s political scene, insists on the election of Suleiman Frangiyeh, a close friend of the Assad family in Syria.

Berri called earlier this month for a June 15 session to elect a president.

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