General who fled Lebanon in pyjamas returns to try to rally his supporters

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The Independent Online

General Michel Aoun fled in his pyjamas to the French embassy as Syrian aircraft bombed his presidential palace 15 years ago. Yesterday, he flew back to Lebanon from self-imposed exile in Paris, dressed in a suit and tie, travelling in a specially chartered plane of the national airline.

General Michel Aoun fled in his pyjamas to the French embassy as Syrian aircraft bombed his presidential palace 15 years ago. Yesterday, he flew back to Lebanon from self-imposed exile in Paris, dressed in a suit and tie, travelling in a specially chartered plane of the national airline.

The Christian Maronites who supported his futile six-month "war of independence" against Syria - which cost the lives of 3,500 innocents - flocked to the airport to see him arrive. But others have darker memories. Aoun was in the habit, back in 1990, of comparing himself to Jesus and Charles de Gaulle, his enemies to Pilate and Judas. Messianic was the word that used to come to mind. He sometimes did not appear rational, censoring newspapers from his Christian east Beirut enclave.

Democracy was what he demanded then - and a Syrian withdrawal - which, after 29 years, has just been accomplished. But what kind of "democracy" does Aoun want? Back in February, he said he did not feel any remorse for the 3,500 dead. "All's fair in love and war," the general announced. "Is there such a thing as war without collateral damage?" And now, he wants to be president.

In the "new" Lebanon that is supposed to be emerging now that the Syrians have gone, the opposition has embraced Christians, Druze and Sunni Muslims. But in east Beirut, there are now Aoun T-shirts and ones portraying the face of Samir Geagea, Aoun's old militia rival who has been rotting in the defence ministry base for 11 years. These men hated each other, although Aoun now calls for his release. So does Aoun's other old rival, the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who travelled to Paris to see Aoun in February.

Although Aoun always claimed to represent both Christians and Muslims - 65 per cent of his army, he would point out, were Muslims - he never captured the affections of any but Maronites. While he claimed to be a patriot in resisting Syria, he chose not to fight Lebanon's Israeli invaders in 1982. That was left to the Hizbollah and the Palestinians. The opposition is going to have to work carefully to ensure that their unity is not damaged by this, especially if Geagea is also released.

When Aoun fought the Syrians, the opposing Lebanese army commander was General Emile Lahoud. Lahoud is now President of Lebanon. It was he who decided to drop charges against Aoun and allow him to come home. Was this generosity? Or does Lahoud hope that Aoun's abrasive self-regard will destroy the opposition?

Aoun's first appointment yesterday was at Lebanon's army memorial, then to the tomb of murdered ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri. At Martyrs' Square, he was to address his supporters. Then we shall see if Muslims like Aoun as much as he claims.

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