Beirut (AFP) - After nearly three weeks of an absence cloaked in rumour and mystery, a crowd of ecstatic supporters welcomed Prime Minister Saad Hariri like a prodigal son on Wednesday.
Hundreds of noisy supporters thronged a beaming Hariri at his Beirut home, a few hours after a jet flew him back to Lebanon.
The unprecedented episode in Lebanese politics saw him announce his resignation in a November 4 televised address from Saudi Arabia in which he said he feared for his life.
He also accused the Hezbollah group and its backers in Tehran of taking over Lebanon and destabilising the region, sparking fears of an escalation between Sunni and Shiite powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Rumours that he was held hostage in Saudi Arabia sparked alarm beyond Hariri's political family and his return late Tuesday after a stop in France saw Lebanon breathe a sigh of relief.
"Saad or nothing", "With you during the good and the bad days" read some of the banners in the crowd that filled the streets around his home in central Beirut Wednesday, which also happened to be the 74th anniversary of Lebanon's independence from France.
Among the supporters, clad in the blue colours of Hariri's Future Movement, Mona Sabbagh was struggling to hold back tears.
"We were so worried," she said, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the 47-year-old prime minister's face.
- 'Real family' -
"Now we are all with him, not only Lebanon but the entire world," said this Beirut resident in her forties. "Lebanon is emerging stronger from this."
Hariri had looked tired and worried when he appeared on television from Saudi Arabia but on Wednesday he said he had suspended his resignation.
And when he addressed the crowd his tone was anything but that of a politician about to bow out of the arena.
"This is a day I will never forget," Hariri said, smiling and wearing a sports jacket when he appeared in front of the crowd from his residence's main entrance.
"You are my real family," he said before going on a walkabout among his fans.
"For three weeks, it felt like war time, everybody was wondering where Hariri was, some people had begun packing their bags," said Nada Rabaa, one of those who came to welcome Hariri back home.
Echoing a widespread feeling among the Hariri supporters gathered near his home, the 48-year-old lawyer was full of praise for the key role French President Emmanuel Macron appears to have played in securing the premier's return.
"We obtained our independence from France 74 years ago," she said. "Today is a real Independence Day thanks to President Macron who brought him back."
Many supporters were carrying posters of Hariri. "It's the face of peace," said one supporter who gave her name as Rana.
Ali, from the central village of Barja, said the return of "Hariri has given Lebanon a new lease of life".