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Last Updated: Saturday, 7 May, 2005, 21:55 GMT 22:55 UK
Beirut cheers on returning exile
Michel Aoun (right) with his wife Nadia at Beirut airport
Mr Aoun has said he may stand in forthcoming elections
Lebanese opposition leader Michel Aoun has been cheered by large crowds on his return to Beirut from exile in France.

The former prime minister was exiled for 14 years after failing to end Syrian military influence in Lebanon.

"Today is a day for joy, a day for jubilation. I'm back," Mr Aoun told crowds in Beirut's Martyrs' Square.

Opponents of Mr Aoun, 70, a Christian hardliner, resent his grandeur and populism, and fear he could destabilise Lebanon's delicate political balance.

Crowds gathered on the tarmac at Beirut airport to greet the chartered plane carrying Mr Aoun, his family and top aides.

Minds must be changed and we must get rid of the political feudalism and religious system that dates back to the 19th Century
Michel Aoun

After a stop at Lebanon's tomb of the unknown soldier, he journeyed to Martyrs' Square, where thousands stood to hear him appeal for a secular Lebanon.

"I return as the sun of liberty shines anew to rebuild, together, a new Lebanon," he said.

The former general's return was made possible after the departure of Syrian troops last month.

He has promised to fight corruption and sectarianism within Lebanese politics.

The BBC's Kim Ghattas in Beirut says Mr Aoun's return has been welcomed even by his opponents as another step towards national reconciliation.

Within minutes of landing, he demonstrated his famous abrasive style, telling reporters to shut up and then taking a verbal swipe at Lebanon's President Emile Lahoud.

Divisive figure

Parliamentary elections are due at the end of this month and Mr Aoun, who has been living in France, has indicated that he might stand for office.

BIOGRAPHY: MICHEL AOUN
1935: Born in Beirut
1958: Graduates as army artillery officer
1984: Promoted to commander in chief of the armed forces
September 1988: Appointed head of interim government. Vows to expel Syrian troops
November 1989: Refuses to step down as prime minister after being sacked by president
October 1990: Aoun loyalists defeated by Syrian troops. Aoun negotiates ceasefire after taking refuge in French Embassy
August 1991: Granted amnesty by government and offered asylum in France
1999: Allowed to return home but is dissuaded by Syrian military presence
May 2005: Returns to Beirut after 14 years in exile

"I am the grandfather, the father and the son of the opposition," he told the Lebanese television channel LBC on the eve of his return.

His supporters compare the return of the man who campaigned tirelessly for the end of Syria's military presence in Lebanon to Gen de Gaulle's return to a liberated France in 1945 after the last German soldier marched out.

However, his critics resent his mannerisms, dubbing him "Napolaoun".

They are concerned that his return could upset the country's fragile social structure, which is mired in complex political and religious sensitivities.

Mr Aoun led a military caretaker government in the late 1980s.

He tried unsuccessfully to drive the Syrian forces out of Lebanon and was forced to flee in 1990. Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon last month.


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