Page last updated at 22:42 GMT, Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Lebanon's Aoun in Damascus visit

Lebanese Christian leader Michel Aoun (left) meets Syrian President Bashar Assad
Aoun's visit to Syria has been criticised by anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians

The former Lebanese general and prominent Maronite Christian leader, Michel Aoun, has held talks in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Mr Aoun, who fought Syrian troops in the civil war but now leads a pro-Syrian faction in Lebanon's parliament, said they had had a frank discussion.

He added that Lebanon and Syria were now putting the past behind them.

Mr Aoun is the latest senior Lebanese leader to visit Syria since ties were renewed in October.

The move came soon after a deal to calm the long-running power struggle between the Western-backed parliamentary majority opposed to Syrian influence in Lebanon and a coalition led by Hezbollah and its allies, including Mr Aoun.

We are turning a new page where there is no victor and no loser - this is a return to normal relations
Michel Aoun

Nevertheless, the BBC's Natalia Antelava in Beirut says this historic visit is one that most people in Lebanon could not have imagined even a short while ago.

As interim prime minister and military commander in 1989, Mr Aoun led the Christian-dominated army in a failed "war of liberation" against the Syrian army and its supporters which left thousands of civilians dead.

In October 1990, the Syrian troops drove Mr Aoun's out of their positions. He found sanctuary in the French embassy - reportedly after fleeing the presidential palace in his pyjamas - and 10 months later left for the south of France.

Mr Aoun returned to Lebanon in May 2005, a month after the end of Syria's 29-year military deployment in the country.

'Bright future'

At the start of his five-day visit to Damascus, Mr Aoun said his animosity toward Syria had ended when its troops left Lebanon.

Michel Aoun (February 1990)
Michel Aoun launched a furious six-month rebellion against Syria in 1989

"This is an old story that is now over. We must have better relations with Syria," he said.

"We spoke with our hearts and minds... so there remains no trace of a past in which there are many painful things."

Mr Aoun instead predicted a "bright future" for ties between the two neighbours.

"We are turning a new page where there is no victor and no loser. This is a return to normal relations," he added.

Buthaina Shaaban, an adviser to President Assad, said Mr Aoun's visit opened "a new era in relations between Syria and Lebanon that will serve the interests of the two countries and the two peoples".

During their meeting, the two leaders are also believed to have discussed the fate of Lebanese citizens missing since the 1975-1990 civil war. Support groups believe around 650 remain unaccounted for, but Damascus denies any involvement.

Mr Aoun also said Syria's president had been "supportive of the holding of legislative elections" due to take place in Lebanon in the spring, and had promised not to interfere in the process.

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