Exiled Aoun returns to Lebanon

 

Lebanon: Former army chief Michel Aoun returned to Lebanon on Saturday to a hero's welcome from thousands of flag-waving supporters in the centre of Beirut.

Standing behind a plexiglass shield, he told cheering fans, "Here I am today, returning to you, and Lebanon has become sovereign, free and independent."

Some in the mainly Maronite Christian crowd extended their right arms in the fascist salute adopted by the right-wing Phalange party in 1936, others wept and hugged each other in joy while youngsters danced in the street.

Mr Aoun's return, 12 days after the last Syrian soldiers pulled out of Lebanon, was compared by his followers to the return to France of Gen Charles de Gaulle after the second World War.

But Lebanese analysts expressed concern over his plans to run for parliament in elections called for the end of this month and to challenge president Emile Lahoud's legitimacy with the aim of removing him from power.

Under strong pressure from Damascus, Mr Lahoud's term of office was extended by three years last September, setting off the chain of events which led to the assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri on February 14th and the Syrian withdrawal.

Towards the end of Lebanon's civil war, Mr Aoun was called upon by outgoing president Amin Gemayel to form a temporary government of military officers to take power until a successor was elected. Mr Aoun set up a junta of Christian officers, subdued the Maronite heartland, and imposed a maritime blockade on mainly Muslim west Beirut.

He rejected the political settlement ending the war agreed by Lebanese parliamentarians in October 1989, refused to submit to president Elias Hrawi, and launched vicious artillery barrages in both the Christian and Muslim sectors of Beirut.

His rebellion was quelled in 1990 by Syrian forces with the approval of the US and Israel. Mr Aoun went into exile in France.

On the eve of Mr Aoun's arrival, a bombing in a Christian suburb killed two.

In addition, an armed Syrian was intercepted approaching the platform from where Mr Aoun addressed the crowd.

Mr Aoun's return has prompted Maronite demands for the release from prison of former warlord Samir Geagea who battled the general for control of the Christian area.

Lebanese fear that the re-emergence of these two figures could destabilise the country.