Click photo to enlarge
Syrian refugees flee from the Lebanese eastern town of Arsal on their way to cross back into Syria, as they ride in the back of a pickup truck with their belongings at the Lebanese border crossing point of Masnaa, eastern Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014. Up to 150 cars packed with Syrian refugees were seen leaving Arsal. A security official in eastern Lebanon said arrangements were made for them to cross back into Syria through the border crossing. It was not immediately clear where in Syria the refugees were going, but many may have been fleeing the violence in Arsal for areas inside their country where there has been less fighting recently. (AP Photo)

BEIRUT (AP) — Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, considered Lebanon's most influential Sunni Muslim politician, returned unexpectedly to Lebanon Friday after three years of self-imposed exile.

His surprise return comes at a delicate time for the country after a week of bloody battles between the army and Sunni extremists from Syria have exacerbated the Lebanon's own simmering sectarian tensions.

The seizure by the militants of Arsal, a mostly Sunni town filled with Syrian refugees and surrounded by Shiite villages, has further entangled Lebanon into Syria's catastrophic three-year-old civil war.

Hariri's return is being seen as a bid to reassert his leadership over the Sunni community in Lebanon amid growing concern that many in the community are being radicalized by the increasingly sectarian war next door.

The revolt against Syrian President Bashar Assad is being overwhelmingly fought by Sunnis, many of them dominated by a radical Islamist ideology. The Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah has actively fought on the Syrian government side.

Talal Salman, editor in chief of the local As-Safir newpaper, wrote a front page open letter this week urging Hariri to return.

"Your return through the gate of Arsal is necessary to protect Lebanon," he wrote, warning that the Sunni Muslim community was drifting away from its traditional moderate leadership with Sunni extremists filling the void.


Hariri, a Saudi-backed politician, left Lebanon in January 2011 after his government was brought down by Hezbollah and its allies. He has since split his time between Paris and Saudi Arabia, citing concerns for his safety.

Hariri is the son of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed in a truck bombing in February 2005 and whose assassination triggered a massive popular uprising that led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops in Lebanon following a decades-long military presence.

The younger Hariri was ousted as prime minister after he refused to renounce a U.N.-backed tribunal to try the killers of his late father.

His return Friday comes as the Lebanese army tightened its control over Arsal, which was seized by the Syria-based Islamic extremists on Saturday. The militants withdrew Thursday, taking a number of the captive Lebanese soldiers and policemen with them.

Hariri on Wednesday announced from Saudi Arabia a grant of $1 billion for the Lebanese army to help its fight against militants.

Upon returning Friday, Hariri visited the grave of his father in downtown Beirut and then met Prime Minister Tammam Salam.