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Aoun visits Geagea and calls for his release

Old foes meet for first time since civil war

By Majdoline Hatoum/Daily Star

Thursday, May 19, 2005

BEIRUT: In the latest reconciliation between Lebanese war foes, Free Patriotic Movement leader, Michel Aoun, visited Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea in his prison cell yesterday and called for a full amnesty for his onetime enemy. The encounter between the two men, the first in over 15 years, is indicative of the political change in Lebanon since the withdrawal of Syrian troops, and comes 10 days before the country's crucial parliamentary elections begin.

Following the meeting Aoun said: "The page of the past cannot be partially folded. It is either fully folded or it is not.

"Keeping (Geagea) in prison is an injustice. I declare my solidarity with him until he is released. The visit lays the foundations for a new relationship within the democratic process we are witnessing today, and within the framework of letting go of the past."

Aoun also urged other opposition leaders, such as Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, to visit Geagea, adding that his old foe was "in very good health thanks to the spiritual energy derived from his convictions."

Geagea, Aoun said, was "cheerful and positive," and he said they were able to speak freely without supervision.

Aoun insisted the pair "didn't discuss politics" and denied his visit was geared toward forging pre-election alliances.

Aoun has yet to declare his electoral alliances, insisting he will wait and reveal his lists at "the last minute."

But it is understood that a formal electoral reconciliation between the two anti-Syrian leaders could be translated in alliances on the ground between Geagea's LF and Aoun's FPM.

The pair last met in December 1989. A month later, their forces fought vicious street and mountain battles. Following the end of the civil war, Aoun was banished to France, and Geagea was later jailed on accounts most Lebanese politicians say were fabricated to stop him from opposing Syria's grip over Lebanon.

The LF leader was convicted of the 1987 assassination of Prime Minister Rashid Karami, whose brother Omar Karami, another ex-premier, is opposed to amnesty calls for the former LF chief.

Geagea is the only prominent former warlord still in jail. Other ex-militia leaders benefited from a 1991 general amnesty for crimes committed during the war - and some are now MPs and Cabinet ministers. Geagea's supporters consider him a political prisoner.

Calls for his release have intensified since Syria withdrew from Lebanon last month. Lebanon's opposition has presented a proposal to Parliament to free Geagea, but it is unlikely to be voted on until after the elections.

Both Hariri and Jumblatt have electoral alliances with the LF, and both have called for the release of Geagea, insisting it is the final step in Lebanon's national reconciliation.

But their relationship with Aoun, who recently returned from his 15-years exile in France, remains shaky.

Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman paid a visit to Aoun, after which he said he agreed with the former army commander that the upcoming elections are the first step toward democratic change in Lebanon.

Feltman also said he agreed with Aoun that the 2000 electoral law - which is being used for the current vote - is "far from ideal."

"Clearly there is a need for an electoral law in Lebanon that is permanent and fair," he said.