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Anti-Syrian exile back in Lebanon

Saturday, May 7, 2005/CNN

BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN) -- Michel Aoun, a former Lebanese Army general who opposed his country's occupation by Syria, made a triumphant return to his homeland Saturday after nearly 14 years of exile in France.

A crowd of cheering supporters greeted Aoun as he stepped off a Middle East Airlines chartered plane at Beirut's airport.

"Today is a day of happiness and joy," he told a news conference, The Associated Press reported.

"I am coming to look to the future and to build Lebanon together" with the Lebanese.

Aoun said the Lebanese lived under a "black cloud" for years but that now "a sun of freedom" is shining.

Aoun arrived in Beirut with about 100 aides, AP said. He waved to the crowd as he left the plane with his wife, Nadia, two aides and bodyguards.

Tens of thousands of supporters, many waving Lebanon's red, white and green flag, packed Beirut's downtown and cheered wildly as a giant TV screen showed Aoun's arrival.

Supporters planned a welcome rally later Saturday at Beirut's Martyrs Square, renamed Freedom Square after the so-called Cedar Revolution.

Aoun, a Maronite Christian, is seen by his supporters as a symbol of Lebanese freedom and independence. His return comes less than two weeks after Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon.

Aoun essentially ran a rival administration to Lebanon's pro-Syrian government in the late 1980s and was seen as having the willingness to stand up to Syria when it refused to leave the country.

A one-time interim prime minister, Aoun lost his "war of liberation" against Syrian forces and took refuge at Lebanon's French Embassy, AP said. He was sent into exile in France.

An arrest warrant against him was dropped earlier in the week, clearing the way for his return, AP said.

After arriving home, Aoun went to the Freedom Square tomb of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in February.

Aoun crossed himself and stood at attention to honor the late Lebanese leader.

Syria, which occupied Lebanon for years, was accused of involvement in Hariri's death and withdrew its forces under relentless international pressure that intensified after the February 14 assassination.

CNN Beirut Bureau Chief Brent Sadler contributed to this report.