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French Version

FPM begins final countdown to Aoun's return

Thousands celebrate syria's pullout

The final countdown to the return of exiled former Army commander General Michel Aoun got under way over the weekend, with the Free Patriotic Movement organizing seminars and demonstrations across the country.

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Aoun, who has been living in exile in France for the past 15 years, is set to return to Beirut on May 7, two days after a court session to discuss legal accusations against the head of the FPM is expected to drop all charges, and despite fears by some supporters that the government may hinder this process.

Speaking with FPM activists in Marjayoun Sunday, Aoun highlighted the effort required to settle problems in the South, particularly along the UN-delineated Blue Line, and restore normal life to residents there after 25 years of conflict.

Aoun said that he hoped to be greeted by a cohesive popular fabric upon his return, "the day we will celebrate the liberation of Lebanon [from Syrian hegemony] and the recovering of the country's free decision-making."

The former army commander had said Friday night in an interview with Hizbullah's Al-Manar television, that he was not concerned for his own safety upon his return.

He said: "I feel safe because the people, who recently broke all the chains bounding them, are my main safety net."

He also expressed his relief over the appointment of new security chiefs in the country.

FPM information official Elias Zoghbi said acquiring sovereignty and independence was easier than preserving it, and that the big challenge - building a stable future that meets the expectations of the Lebanese - would start a week after Aoun's return.

On Saturday, FPM activists gathered in the Bekaa town of Anjar - the former nerve center of Syrian military intelligence - to celebrate the area's liberation.

Hundreds of FPM supporters drove in a convoy of some 100 cars to Anjar, long the command headquarters of Syrian intelligence chief Brigadier General Rustom Ghazaleh.

But as the convoy reached Anjar, Lebanese Army troops and ISF members formed a barricade to stop the group from entering the premises and prevent them from confronting pro-Syrian residents.

Celebrators then climbed onto a former Syrian checkpoint on Anjar's main entrance and planted the Lebanese national flag atop the structure, before touring the neighboring villages of Deir Zannoun, Jdita and Qabb Elias, where they were greeted by activists from slain former Premier Rafik Hariri's Future Movement.

The two sides exchanged portraits of Hariri and Aoun, and together sang Lebanon's national anthem.

FPM activists wrapped up the day-long celebrations in Nahr al-Kalb, north of Beirut, holding an open-air rally under the glitter of multicolored and thunderous fireworks. Thousands of FPM supporters wearing party colors gathered near the historic site where kings and emperors left monuments to commemorate their withdrawal.


Lebanese judiciary drops charges against Aoun

General's aid released from custody

Lebanon's judiciary has dropped all charges against exiled former Army Commander General Michel Aoun, removing all legal obstacles ahead of his return to Lebanon this week after 15 years in France. The decision marks the first time in the history of the public prosecutor's office that charges against a defendant have been quashed.

Judicial sources said the decision followed a meeting between Justice Minister Khaled Qabbani and Beirut's public prosecutors after the minister held talks with the president of Beirut's Criminal Court, Magistrate Michel Abu Arraj.

Magistrate Jihad al-Wadi formally dropped all three charges against Aoun during a court session yesterday, adding he was not competent to judge Aoun on the third charge of embezzling funds.

Meanwhile, the former head of the military intelligence SWAT department while Aoun was interim prime minister, Colonel Fayez Karam, was released from custody after having been arrested by military police upon his arrival in Beirut Tuesday from Paris where he spent the last 13 years in exile.

During a military tribunal presided over by Brigadier General Elias Jarjoush the official's release was ordered for lack of evidence in the case.

At the end of the civil war Aoun was charged with usurping power to stay at the helm of a caretaker government, despite the election of then President Elias Hrawi.

He was also charged with carrying out unlawful political activity during his exile in France, and with embezzling public funds.

Statements made by Aoun in testimony to the U.S. Congress in 2003 were deemed by Lebanon's courts as an attempt to "undermine sisterly relations between Lebanon and Syria and expose the country to the danger of hostilities."

According to the judicial sources, a request by Aoun's lawyers to suspend or cancel the arrest warrant against the former general on the unlawful activity charges was approved on the basis that Aoun's appearance before Congress was a "mere political opinion that does not hold any criminal dimensions," and that "the judicial file was opened by political officials in Lebanon in the past."

An arch-foe of Syria throughout his 15 years of exile, Aoun's scheduled homecoming on Saturday marks a major shift in Lebanese politics following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February which stirred a wave of anger that forced Damascus to loosen its grip here.

With three days left until Aoun's return, posters have been plastered throughout Beirut comparing his return to the triumphant comeback of France's exiled World War II leader Charles De Gaulle.

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Beirut 04-05-2005
Majdoline Hatoum
The Daily Star

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