Exiled leader Aoun back in Beirut

Sunday, May 8, 2005

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Defeated in a battle against Syrian control of his country 15 years ago and sent into exile, Gen. Michel Aoun returned Saturday to a rousing welcome from thousands of supporters in a homeland recently freed of Syrian troops.

The former army commander was already emerging as a player in upcoming parliamentary elections.

"Here I am today, returning to you, and Lebanon has become sovereign, free and independent," he told a flag-waving crowd of at least 20,000 in a central Beirut square who cheered wildly, danced, hugged, kissed and even wept in joy.

Aoun, also a former interim prime minister, returned less than two weeks after Syria completed the withdrawal of its remaining 14,000 troops in Lebanon. But Aoun returned to a country buffeted by political turmoil and security instability.

. On the eve of his arrival, a bombing in a city north of the capital killed one person and wounded two dozen, prompting demands from opposition lawmakers that the president resign.

In a reminder of the fragile security, police officials said they arrested two Syrian nationals and a Lebanese who approached the platform from where Aoun addressed the crowd. The Syrian national, identified as Mohammed Jamal, was carrying a pistol concealed under his jacket, finger on the trigger, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

At 69, Aoun is no longer the uniformed rebel commander who led his mostly Christian military units of a divided Lebanese army in a "war of liberation" against Syrian troops in 1989. But for many he is still the same old "general" -- as supporters still refer to him.

The boisterous public welcome was a sharp contrast to his departure from Lebanon, when he was whisked out of the country by French commandos at night from the French Embassy, where he had taken refuge.

Just days ago, Aoun was a wanted fugitive in Lebanon, and his supporters have been the target of regular arrests by pro-Syrian Lebanese authorities. But with the completion of Syria's troop withdrawal on April 26 and the dropping of an arrest warrant against him this week, his exile ended.

He is now an accepted politician who is being courted by friends and foes alike as Lebanon heads into crucial parliamentary elections later this month.

Emerging on a stage in downtown Beirut flashing victory signs behind protective glass, Aoun reminded the throngs of his uncompromising refusal, as interim prime minister, to accept a 1989 agreement that ended the 1975-90 civil war but which eventually led to Syria dominating Lebanon.

"I told you one day that the world can smash me but will not make me sign on. Here I return today and the world could not crush me or extract my signature," he said.

Rana Ghazal, a 21-year-old literature student, wept as Aoun spoke.

"We, the young people of Lebanon, have been waiting for this day for 15 years," she said. "Today, for the first time, I felt that Lebanon was a free, sovereign and independent country."

But Lebanon's political divisions were again highlighted earlier in the day, when Parliament rejected a call from President Emile Lahoud for a compromise election law ahead legislative balloting set to begin May 29. Many saw Lahoud's request as a delayed attempt at compromise.

The rejection means that the previous election law of 2000, which many say was influenced by Syrian intelligence officers and which produced a pro-Syrian parliament, will stand.

Opposition lawmakers accused Lahoud of presiding over security agencies that they blamed for Friday night's bombing in the picturesque Christian port city Jounieh, 10 miles north of Beirut. The president rejected the criticism.

The attack followed bombings in March and April in Christian districts and strongholds of opponents of Syria's influence that killed three people.

The opposition has linked the assassination of Hariri, Lahoud's political rival, to Syria and some of its allies in Lebanon, charges both have rejected.

At the airport, Aoun also took a swipe at Lahoud, describing the president as "a person who represented a government that has persecuted me for 15 years. Now, I forgive them but I will not thank them."

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