Christian leader Aoun to quit France for Lebanon

6th May 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, May 5 (AFP) - Lebanon's Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun will taste sweet revenge Saturday when he returns to his native land, now free of the Syrian troops that forced him into exile in France 15 years ago.

PARIS, May 5 (AFP) - Lebanon's Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun will taste sweet revenge Saturday when he returns to his native land, now free of the Syrian troops that forced him into exile in France 15 years ago.  

"It will be a historic day, full of emotion and joy," Aoun told a Paris press conference ahead of his much-anticipated weekend departure.  

"The crowd will be jubilant," predicted Lebanon's former armed forces chief, who will arrive in Beirut aboard a specially chartered jet, accompanied by 50 journalists, photographers and cameramen.  

"You'll see it - in your homes, on your television screens."  

Upon his arrival, the controversial Aoun, 70, will first visit Lebanon's tomb of the unknown soldier - a symbol of both the country's suffering during 15 years of civil war and the need for national reconciliation.  

He will then lay a wreath on the tomb of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, whose assassination on February 14 triggered a groundswell of popular anger that forced Damascus to end its 29-year political and military presence.  

In an effort to link the past, present and future in three simple gestures, Aoun will then address young supporters at Martyrs' Square in central Beirut, offering his vision of the country's future.  

Aides to the general say that young Lebanese expatriates living in the United States, France and elsewhere have started heading home in anticipation of his return.  

But Aoun says he feels just as close to the Lebanese people who never left home. He says he held "weekly videoconferences" with his countrymen while in exile in a bid to stay in touch with his homeland.  

He prides himself on his "vision of the future of Lebanon, one that is much more precise that the view taken by those who participated in politics during the (Syrian) occupation".  

"I'm coming back as someone who has ended his struggle with the realization of a goal in which I believed and for which I fought: the independence and sovereignty of Lebanon," Aoun told reporters.  

The general told AFP last month that he would be prepared to assume Lebanon's presidency should a "national consensus" emerge in his favor, but he has an even loftier goal: the full separation of church and state.  

"It's hugely ambitious," he admitted.  

Aoun also said he would demand "an audit of public finances in a country where corruption has become a habit".  

Aoun, the target of at least two assassination attempts - in May 1989 in Cyprus, and in October 1990 in Beirut - says that he does not fear for his life.  

"In France, I was under French protection. On Lebanese soil, responsibility for my safety will fall to the Lebanese government," he said.  

He denied that France had encouraged him not to go home, dismissing such a suggestion as "rumour".  

"The return of General Aoun is his personal choice," said French foreign ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei.  

But privately, diplomats were more sceptical. One told AFP that Aoun's return "must not complicate the situation," while another said: "Today, Lebanon is like extremely fragile porcelain."  

Lebanon's courts have removed several legal impediments to Aoun's return, paving the way for his return.  

On Wednesday, a Lebanese court dropped a series of outstanding charges against Aoun, who headed a military government from March 1989 to October 1990 until he was forced into exile by the Syrian army.  

Magistrate Jihad al-Wadi opted to drop charges of usurping power for attempting to remain at the head of the caretaker government, carrying out unlawful political activity while in exile and embezzling public funds.  

Aoun, however, still faces charges in connection with testimony he gave to a US congressional committee in September 2003 which helped pave the way for Washington's adoption of sanctions against Syria.  

In his evidence to the committee, Aoun accused Syria of masterminding the assassinations of two Lebanese presidents during the 1975-1990 civil war, statements that Lebanon has said were damaging to its relations with Syria.  

On Thursday, Lebanon decided to delay a ruling in that case until July - after upcoming elections - and suspend an arrest warrant against Aoun.


Subject: French News

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