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)
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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.
"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
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
"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
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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