Lebanon Frees Infamous Christian Warlord

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A notorious anti-Syrian Christian warlord was released Tuesday after 11 years in prison, the latest reconciliatory step in civil war-scarred Lebanon after the recent collapse of Syria's military dominance.

Samir Geagea (search), who had been serving three life sentences for murdering several people, including a former pro-Syrian premier, urged Lebanese in a nationally televised speech, which was also broadcast throughout the Middle East, to put the country's 1975-90 civil war era behind them.

"You have come out of the big prison which you had been put in and you have taken me out with the same act from the small prison which I have been put in," said Geagea, in reference to April's Syrian military withdrawal, during his first public address since being imprisoned in April 1994.

"They were long dark black years," he said during an emotional speech at Beirut's international airport which was attended by several hundred applauding politicians, clergymen, supporters and journalists.

Geagea, 53, left his Defense Ministry cell in Beirut and soldiers escorted him straight to the airport where he met with supporters of his disbanded militia, the Christian Lebanese Forces. Outside, scores more supporters cheered, danced and waved Lebanese flags in celebration.

Wearing a blue shirt and jacket, Geagea, balding with slightly graying hair and mustache, appeared thin but spoke with a strong, clear voice. He was scheduled to leave Lebanon later Tuesday to an unspecified destination in Europe for a medical checkup.

Geagea was the only prominent former warlord from Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war era to remain jailed for opposing Syrian dominance after being sentenced to life behind bars for killing several people. These included former Lebanese Prime Minister Rashid Karami (search), who died in a 1987 bombing of a military helicopter, and Danny Chamoun (search), a prominent Christian politician.

Other ex-militia leaders, however, benefited from a 1991 general amnesty for crimes committed during the civil war.

But this year's political revolution in Lebanon paved the way for his release. The Feb. 14 assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri (search) was the catalyst for change, with many Lebanese blaming Syria for his death. Despite denying the claims, Syria was forced to withdraw all is forces from Lebanon, which were deployed here during the early stages of the civil war.

On July 18, Lebanon's newly elected parliament, which is dominated by an anti-Syrian coalition, approved a motion to pardon Geagea, who had spent most of the past 11 years in solitary confinement in an underground Defense Ministry in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, cell with no access to news.

The motion was endorsed by pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud (search) the next day, ensuring Geagea's freedom. But he remained in prison for security reasons until preparations for his travel were completed.

Some 100 lawmakers of the 128-member Parliament voted to pardon Geagea apparently in the spirit of national reconciliation following Syria's withdrawal, ending Syria's 29-year military presence and domination of Lebanon.

Syrian influence over Lebanese politics had stymied past attempts to secure his pardon and the return of former Lebanese army commander Gen. Michel Aoun (search) from 14 years' exile in France. But Aoun returned May 7, less than two weeks after Syria's troop withdrawal.

"If a people one day want to live [in freedom] then fate will definitely respond, and it did respond," Geagea said in reference to the end to Syria's control of Lebanese political and security affairs.

Geagea said Lebanon remains under attack, referring to a recent spate of assassinations targeting Lebanese personalities and a border clampdown imposed by Syrian customs officials that has choked this country's commercial land link to the Arab world.

Many here regard the border measures as Syrian punishment against Lebanon for the U.S. and U.N. demanded withdrawal.

Geagea did not mention Syria by name, but said: "The arms of the clock never go backward and they will not go back today. The black years are behind you."

Geagea, whose Lebanese Forces (search) militia targeted Druse, Muslim and Palestinian forces during the civil war, called for cooperation from Lebanon's disparate political and religious groups to help the country's reconstruction.

Lebanon's future needs, he said, "cooperation of a totally different spirit than the one that prevailed during the war years."

Geagea allied his men with the Israelis in the central mountain region during the Jewish state's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and has been linked with some of Lebanon's most notorious civil war-era killings.

Geagea was arrested in 1994 and his group was outlawed after a church bombing killed 10 people. He was later acquitted of the bombing but sentenced to three life terms on several other murder counts, including the killings of Karami and Chamoun.

On Thursday, Iranian state-run television reported that Iran plans to file a lawsuit against Geagea over the kidnapping of four Iranian diplomats in Beirut in 1982.