Page last updated at 22:52 GMT, Tuesday, 26 July 2005 23:52 UK

Lebanese close civil war chapters

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Beirut

Supporters of Samir Geagea celebrate
Samir Geagea's release was hailed by his supporters
Supporters of the former warlord Samir Geagea danced in the streets, offering chocolate and popping bottles of champagne as soon as news spread that their leader had left his cell at the ministry of defence.

Mr Geagea had spent 11 years underground in solitary confinement, years during which members of his Lebanese Forces party were regularly harassed and beaten by security agencies.

But on Tuesday, the former Christian militia leader was escorted by the army into freedom, a sign of the changing times in Lebanon.

An amnesty law pardoning Mr Geagea was signed last week by the country's new parliament, dominated for the first time in decades by anti-Syrian legislators who were elected in June's general elections.

The dark years are now behind us
Samir Geagea

The LF is still banned but several of Mr Geagea's allies as well as his wife now have seats in parliament.

"You've been freed from a big prison and that's what's enabled me to be released from [my] little prison," said Mr Geagea during a nationally televised speech, soon after his release.

He was referring to the withdrawal of Syrian troops in April, triggered by massive anti-Syrian demonstrations and international pressure on Damascus in the wake of the assassination in February of the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Damascus was blamed for the killing and although it denied any involvement, the affair put an end to its 30-year-long military presence in Lebanon.

"I salute the people of Lebanon, Christian and Muslim, for their struggle for the country's survival and their efforts for my release. The dark years are now behind us, God willing," added Mr Geagea, who opposed Syria's role in Lebanon and was once an ally of Israel.

A saint?

But not everybody was celebrating the release - for some the dark years were not only those of Syrian dominance but also the war years when Mr Geagea and his militia were involved in many ruthless episodes.

National reconciliation must not exclude anyone
Nayla Moawad
Minister of Social Affairs

"I don't understand how he can come out of jail, how he can suddenly be made into this saint," said a Christian woman who did not want to give her name.

"Geagea and his people made us suffer during the war, they forced my brothers into his militia, they would deprive us from bread, from water. All the warlords were bad, but he was the worst, he made his own people, the Christians, suffer. Instead of releasing Geagea, I think they should have put all the other former warlords in jail."

Lebanon's troubled past means there is no shortage of people who have a bloody history.

But in 1990, when the guns fell silent after 15 years of war, Lebanon passed a general amnesty.

Several former warlords entered government, such as Druze leader Walid Jumblatt who held several ministerial posts and is now part of the anti-Syrian opposition, and Nabih Berry, leader of the Amal movement and militia and speaker of the house since 1992.

But Mr Geagea was charged with a bomb attack against a church in 1994 - the amnesty no longer covered him so he was arrested and his war file reopened.

Eventually he was acquitted of the church attack but sentenced to life behind bars for his war offences, including the assassination in 1987 of Prime Minister Rashid Karami and other killings.

Syrian plot

Mr Geagea always proclaimed his innocence and his supporters insisted that his imprisonment was part of a Syrian plot to complete its dominance over Lebanon and eliminate those who opposed it.

Samir Geagea after his release
Born in 1952
Came to prominence after 1978 raid on a rival Maronite Christian warlord
Seized control of Lebanese Forces in 1986
Given five life terms for murder, including 1987 killing of PM Rashid Karami
Supported the Syria-backed peace deal in 1989
Spent 11 years in solitary confinement. Only Lebanese warlord to be jailed for crimes during the civil war

The Syrian pullout also paved the way for the return from exile in May of former Christian army general Michel Aoun who fought a war against Syria and was forced to leave the country after Damascus asserted its control over the whole of Lebanon in 1990.

The return of Mr Aoun, the release of Mr Geagea, the thousands of Christian, Muslim and Druze Lebanese who took to the streets after the Hariri assassination - these are all described by the Lebanese as ways to close old chapters from the war and move towards a much delayed national reconciliation, which never took place after the war ended.

"National reconciliation must not exclude anyone," said Minister of Social Affairs Nayla Moawad.

Meanwhile some politicians said the release meant a remnant of Lebanon's civil war had been resolved.

Over the last 15 years, many accused Syria of having caused divisions among the Lebanese to better control them, forgetting that the Lebanese allowed themselves to be divided.

It remains to be seen whether people and politicians will now be able to actually set their differences aside long-term.

Mr Geagea and Mr Aoun were once bitter foes, fighting all-out battles for leadership of the Christian community.

During the elections, the former general emerged as the new leader of the Christian community - will Mr Geagea try to challenge him upon his return from France, where he is now undergoing medical tests and resting?

The former militia leader has said little about what political role he may take.

But in his speech, Mr Geagea thanked Mr Aoun, and other wartime foes, for their efforts to secure his release as he called on the Lebanese to look ahead and work at rebuilding their country.

The message was certainly one of "let bygones be bygones" but to really move on, Lebanon may need to face its past at some point.

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