- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 10, 2017

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) - Lebanon’s newly elected president met Tuesday with the Saudi king during his first visit to the kingdom, a meeting that could melt the ice after relations became strained over Iran and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

Saudi state news agency SPA said the 83-year-old Michel Aoun met with King Salman at the Yamama palace in Riyadh after arriving in the country a day earlier accompanied by eight government ministers.

A former general, Aoun was elected in October after a 29-month vacuum in the country’s top post. Lebanon’s political factions are deeply divided, with some, like Aoun’s Christian party and the Hezbollah, aligning with Iran and their opponents siding with Saudi Arabia.

Last February, Saudi Arabia halted a $3 billion arms deal with Lebanon and banned Saudis and Gulf nationals from traveling there, decisions linked to the kingdom’s tensions with Iran. Aoun told Saudi media the arms deal would be discussed during his visit.

In December, the 128-member Lebanese parliament approved a national unity government headed by Lebanon’s top Saudi ally, Saad Hariri. He endorsed Aoun, ending the long standing deadlock between the two longtime foes.

Hariri praised Aoun’s visit to Saudi Arabia, saying it would bring “the return of Saudi tourists and investments to Lebanon and all that contributes to the (country’s) economic advancement.”

Hariri is a longtime critic of Hezbollah’s support for the Syrian government in that country’s ongoing civil war. The militant group has sent thousands of its members to fight alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces.

The SPA said King Salman and Aoun discussed bilateral relations, without elaborating.

Aoun, however, told Al-Ekhbariyah TV that besides discussing the arms deal, there would be a “general assessment of the situation,” blaming the strained relations on “events in the Arab countries.”

“I am here today to remove such ambiguities while carrying with me love and friendship to the Saudi people,” he said.

The Syrian war has spilled over into Lebanon on several occasions over the past five years, with clashes and bombings that have killed scores of people. Lebanon is home to some 1.2 million Syrian refugees, equivalent to one fourth of its own population.


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