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Lebanese anti-Syria leader Aoun returns from exile (REUTERS) By Nadim Ladki BEIRUT, LEBANON Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny 05/07/05 12:03 PM ET)Source: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=topNews&storyID=8416580 Reuters News Service Reuters News Service Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon´s most prominent anti-Syria Christian leader returned to a hero´s welcome in Beirut on Saturday, ending more than a decade in exile 11 days after the last Syrian soldier withdrew from the country.

"Today is a day of joy, a day for jubilation. I´m back," Michel Aoun told reporters at Beirut airport after a chartered plane flew him, his family and top aides from France, landing shortly before 5 p.m. (1400 GMT).

"A black cloud oppressed Lebanon for 15 years. Today the sun of freedom is shining. I´m returning to look to the future and rebuild Lebanon together," he said, flanked by his daughters and grandchildren.

The former general, dressed in a gray suit with a blue tie, drove to the central Martyrs´ square, scene of anti-Syrian rallies in the past three months, where tens of thousands of supporters waving Lebanese flags gave him a rapturous welcome.

"General, General," they chanted as Aoun waved to the crowds. A number of Lebanese artists sang and performed the traditional celebratory dabke dance.

"I return to you today and Lebanon has regained its freedom, sovereignty and independence," Aoun said in an address from behind bullet-proof glass.

"I see in your faces the longing for change, and change is coming ... Lebanon will not be ruled from now on in the mentality of the 19th century. We want a modern democracy."

On the eve of Aoun´s return, a bomb ripped through a commercial district of the Christian port town of Jounieh north of Beirut, wounding 28 people and damaging shops, houses and a church three weeks before crucial general elections.

The explosion was the fifth to target Lebanon´s Christian heartland since the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al- Hariri, which plunged the country into its worst political crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Before driving to Martyr´s square, Aoun placed wreaths at the tombs of the unknown soldier and Hariri.

END OF WAR

Aoun´s defeat at the hands of a Syrian-led assault on his powerbase in and around Beirut on Oct. 13, 1990, marked the end of the Lebanese civil war.

He sought refuge at the French embassy before leaving for exile several months later. But despite his defeat and absence, the popularity of the 70-year-old Maronite leader did not fade.

He still enjoys support among many Christians who see in him a leader who is not corrupt and who stood up against Syria and Lebanese militias despite the odds. Detractors say his military gambles led to the defeat of the Maronites in the civil war.

A court this week suspended an arrest warrant for Aoun after another court dropped charges against him issued in 1990 accusing him of assaulting state security, national unity and the constitution, and embezzling state funds.

Aoun has said members of his Free Patriotic Movement will contest the elections. He has not said if he would run for parliament but hinted he would consider the presidency.

Parliament met on Saturday to review a letter from President Emile Lahoud proposing a change to rules under which the polls between May 29 and June 19 would be held.

But the assembly rejected the letter and Speaker Nabih Berri adjourned the session without a vote on changing the electoral law, seen favoring pro-Syria candidates.

The Syrian-backed Hizbollah guerrilla group said on Saturday it expected a heated debate with other groups and the Lebanese government on disarming after the elections, but insisted it would keep its arms as long as Israel posed a threat.

Lebanon´s Prime Minister Najib Mikati said on Friday a U.N. resolution demanding all militias in Lebanon to disarm did not apply to Hizbollah but added the group will be disarmed.

The disarming of Hizbollah, however, "would have to be in the context of a Lebanese framework," Mikati told reporters after meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Syria withdrew its forces last month, ending a 29-year military presence in Lebanon, under pressure from the international community and anti-Syrian protests sparked by Hariri´s killing, which many Lebanese blame on Damascus. (Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny) (© Reuters 2005 05/07/05)


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