BEIRUT, Lebanon – Anti-Syrian leader Michel Aoun (search) returned Saturday from 14 years' exile in France to crowds of cheering supporters, his return paved by the withdrawal of Syrian troops and the dropping of an arrest warrant against him.
The one-time army commander and interim Lebanese prime minister strode onto a stage at downtown Martyrs' Square (search) flashing victory signs before speaking the thousands of flag-waving people from behind protective glass.
"Here I am today, returning to you, and Lebanon has become sovereign, free and independent," said Aoun, who was exiled after losing a "war of liberation" against Syrian forces in 1989-90.
"I told you one day that the world can smash me but will not make me sign on," he told the wild crowd, referring to his 1989 refusal to sign on to an Arab-brokered agreement that ended civil war but consolidated Syria's control over Lebanon. "Here I return today and the world could not crush me or extract my signature."
The screaming crowd — many wearing his Free Patriotic Movement's (search) orange T-shirts and scarfs over their shoulders — had gathered hours before to watch Aoun's arrival and airport news conference on a giant screen. Some hugged and kissed and pumped their fists in the air. Bands played martial music, and troupes danced the Dabke, a traditional folk mountain dance.
Aoun, arriving from Paris on a special Middle East Airlines (search) flight with about 100 aides, emerged from the plane accompanied by his wife, Nadia, and two top aides and flanked by bodyguards. Descending the plane's stairs, he received bouquets of flowers from well-wishers before entering the airport's VIP lounge.
Sitting with two grandchildren on his lap and a smiling daughter who kissed him on the head, the face of the 69-year-old showed no emotion but his eyes glittered as he waited for a news conference to begin.
But he quickly snapped at journalists and supporters who mobbed the VIP lounge. "Please listen a bit," he told the crowd, then shouted: "Shut up!"
"Today is a day of happiness and joy. Lebanon has been under a black cloud that enslaved it for 15 years. Today, there is a sun of freedom. I am coming to look to the future and to build Lebanon together" with the Lebanese, he said.
Issam Abou Jamra (search), a former army general exiled with him, sat on his right. Also accompanying him was Edgar Maalouf (search), another general. The three were members of a military government appointed by President Amin Gemayel (search) in 1988 when Parliament failed to elect a president during the 1975-90 civil war.
On Saturday he urged Lebanese to set aside their differences. He said he had carried out a long campaign to free Lebanon from Syrian control and that the Feb. 14 assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri accelerated the Syrian troop withdrawal.
Although he traveled to Lebanon on a special passport awarded to him by the government because of his status as a former prime minister, Aoun criticized Lebanon's leaders for waging a campaign against him since 1990. He immediately took a swipe at President Emile Lahoud, describing him as "a person who represented a government that has persecuted me for 15 years. Now, I forgive them but I will not thank them."
Aoun then drove to the city and laid a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier and visited the grave of Hariri before meeting the loud throng in the adjacent Martyrs' Square.
He promised his supporters he would help reform Lebanon's sectarian-based political system. "We want a society, even with sectarian allegiance, to vote cccording to its political thinking. Only by this can Lebanon be saved," he said.
Parliamentary elections are scheduled to begin May 29.
Aoun's return followed the April 26 completion of the Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon. Syria pulled its forces under relentless international pressure that intensified after Hariri's assassination.