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General Aoun visits old foe Syria

Lebanese leader Michel Aoun, who led a "war of liberation" against Syrian forces deployed in the country in 1989, received a warm welcome on Wednesday from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.



AFP - Lebanese Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun on Wednesday predicted a "bright future" for ties between Lebanon and his former foe Syria after talks in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"We are turning a new page where there is no victor and no loser. This is a return to normal relations," Aoun told a news conference on the first day of a visit to the Syrian capital.

"Our discussions hold the promise of a bright future" for the two countries, he said of his meeting with Assad, voicing confidence that any problems between Damascus and Beirut would be resolved.

During the 1975-1990 civil war in Lebanon, Aoun as the head of a disputed Christian government waged a fierce "war of liberation" against Syrian forces deployed in the country.

Forced out of the presidential palace in October 1990, he went into exile in France and only returned to Lebanon in May 2005, a month after the end of Syria's 29-year military deployment.

"This is an old story that is now over. We must have better relations with Syria," he stressed.

Aoun also told reporters that he hoped for a rapid solution to the issue of Lebanese "missing" in Syria, whom support groups in Beirut number at 650 but whom Damascus denies holding.

On the political front, he said Syria was "supportive of the holding of legislative elections (due to be held in Lebanon in the spring) but without interfering" in the process.

Shrugging off criticism of his visit from the anti-Syrian camp which holds the parliamentary majority in Lebanon, Aoun said his mission was justified now that diplomatic ties have been established between Damascus and Beirut.

His critics accuse Aoun, a former Lebanese army chief, of being a turncoat and of kowtowing to his former adversaries for political gain.

Aoun, 73, stunned Lebanon in 2006 when he entered an alliance with the Iran- and Syria-backed Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah. He also caused a stir by visiting Iran in October.

The retired general is due to visit Christian holy sites during his visit to Syria, which will last several days.

Syria and Lebanon launched diplomatic ties for the first time in October after years of tense relations following the murder in February 2005 of former premier Rafiq Hariri.

Damascus was widely blamed for the killing but denies involvement.

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