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Lebanese Christians Want Leaders Back

Buoyed by their success in forcing Syria to withdraw some troops, elements of the Lebanese opposition have called for the return of two Christian leaders who played a major role in the country's bloody civil war.

Nematallah Abi Nasr, a Christian legislator, said Monday that he and some colleagues were working to secure the release from prison of Samir Geagea (search), who led the powerful Lebanese Forces (search) militia during the 1975-90 war, and the return from exile in France of Gen. Michel Aoun (search), the former Lebanese army commander.

Abi Nasr and five other opposition legislators — including a Sunni Muslim, a Shiite Muslim and a Druse — have signed a petition for a bill that would allow Geagea to receive amnesty.

"There can be no national reconciliation if Samir Geagea remains in prison," Abi Nasr said Monday. Druse lawmaker Akram Shehayeb, who fought Geagea's forces during the civil war, said Geagea and Aoun are pillars of the opposition and their cases should be resolved quickly.

Geagea's wife, Setrida, told LBC television on Monday that she expects her husband to be freed soon.

"It is impossible to have a comprehensive reconciliation" without his release, she said.

In 2003, the authorities charged Aoun with harming Lebanon's relations with Syria through remarks he made about Syria in testimony to a U.S. congressional committee.

Abi Nasr said the charges against Aoun are "an empty file, just like the heads" of those who indicted Aoun. Abi Nasr has found an unlikely ally in Lebanon's Environment Minister Wiam Wahhab, who is pro-Syrian and described the Aoun charges as "silly."

Aoun himself has said he plans to return by mid-April.

The imprisonment of Geagea and the exile of Aoun have been open wounds for members of Lebanon's Christian minority since the end of the civil war. The two battled Muslims, and each other, during the conflict but like many in the opposition have reconciled and are now focused on getting the Syrian army out of Lebanon.

Previous attempts to gain a pardon for Geagea and the return of Aoun have been stymied by Syrian influence in Lebanese politics.

But Syria appears to be on the retreat in Lebanon. The Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (search) intensified the domestic and international pressure on Syria to withdraw its troops and intelligence officers.

However, pro-Syrian legislators still hold the majority in the 128-member parliament. But Abi Nasr expressed confidence a bill would pass because it would only require a simple majority of the legislators who attend the session.

Geagea is serving three life sentences for the assassination of political rivals. He was arrested after the bombing of a church in 1994 that killed 10 people.

He was acquitted of the bombing but convicted on other charges.

Geagea's supporters have long considered him a political prisoner. The human rights group Amnesty International (search) has called for the release or retrial of Geagea and fellow militiaman Jirjis al-Khoury.

Amnesty said last year said that their trial was unfair. The government denies that.

Aoun led the Christian faction of the army against the Syrian forces in Lebanon in 1989. The battle ended with the Syrians crushing his forces in October 1990. Aoun took refuge in the French Embassy and in 1991 was allowed to go into exile.