Syrians force General Aoun out of Beirut Christian rebel bows to Lebanese regime, gets French asylum

October 14, 1990|By Nick B. Williams Jr. | Nick B. Williams Jr.,Los Angeles Times

NICOSIA, Cyprus -- Christian strongman Michel Aoun, whose quest for power in Beirut soaked the Lebanese capital in blood for nearly two years, gave up the fight yesterday and received asylum from France.

The former Lebanese army commander ordered his troops to support President Elias Hrawi, head of a Syrian-backed central government whose legitimacy the general had rejected. In the end, it was the Syrian armed forces, whom General Aoun had pledged to drive from Lebanon, that blasted the Christian leader from his presidential palace redoubt with a morning air and artillery bombardment.

Mr. Hrawi's faction of the Lebanese army, under Gen. Emile Lahoud, took over the palace at Baabda, on a rise southeast of Beirut, shortly after noon. By then General Aoun had found sanctuary in the French Embassy, his first known departure from the shell-shattered palace since early last year.

To his fiercely loyal followers in and out of uniform, who ringed the palace with their bodies until the final assault, the 54-year-old, American-trained major general is a patriot who demanded a Lebanon for the Lebanese. Others see him as a quixotic figure, challenging a Syrian army of up to 40,000 men with barely 15,000, and those divided.

General Aoun's departure figures to strengthen the Hrawi government, bolster Syrian influence in Lebanon and deliver a setback to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who, purely as a spoiler against Syria, had sent weapons to General Aoun and other Christian forces last year. But the general's apparent political demise will not solve the problems of fractured Lebanon, where Christian, Shiite, Palestinian and other denominational and political militias continue to rule on rival bits of turf up and down the beleaguered country.

General Aoun's own cause was hurt this year by his failure to gain control in the Christian heartland, where the Lebanese Forces Christian militia fought his troops to a standstill. Whether Mr. Hrawi, like General Aoun a Maronite Christian, will be able to rally support among the general's backers is uncertain.

General Aoun built an image as a simple soldier without political ambitions or the stain of corruption, which afflicts most Lebanese officeholders. That image took a jolt in January when a French journal disclosed that he had a $500,000 account at a Paris bank and a savings account of more than $14 million.

In a brief address over a Christian radio station before midday yesterday, he said: "I ask my chiefs of staff to take their orders henceforth from Gen. Emile Lahoud," commander of the pro-Hrawi brigades of the split Lebanese army. Mr. Hrawi named General Lahoud to replace General Aoun when he sacked the defiant army commander early this year.

Late yesterday in Paris, Foreign Minister Roland Dumas said that General Aoun had been granted political asylum by France. Mr. Dumas said he did not know when the general would arrive or how he wouldleave the French Embassy in Beirut.

"We have made all the arrangements, and we are in talks with the Lebanese and Syrian authorities to help General Aoun's departure," Mr. Dumas said.

According to press reports from Beirut, Mr. Dumas phoned Mr. Hrawi to discuss the prospects of a Paris exile for General Aoun. One radio report said that Mr. Hrawi was insisting that the general forswear further political activity as a condition of receiving safe conduct out of Lebanon.

The final push against the presidential palace, where General Aoun had headed a disputed Christian Cabinet since September 1988, was led by Syrian aircraft, which pounded the structure already battered by Syrian guns in last year's artillery war with General Aoun.

Meanwhile, General Lahoud's men and Syrian armored forces began a three-pronged ground attack. Sometime during the morning, General Aoun slipped away to the French Embassy. When General Lahoud's men reached the palace grounds, surrender was offered by Col. Michel Abu-Rizk, commander of General Aoun's presidential guard.

Mr. Hrawi's government, recognized by the United States and most other nations, is the result of a political compromise triggered by the collapse of the traditional transfer of political power in Lebanon. In the fall of 1988, President Amin Gemayel came to the end of his term with no successor in sight. Lebanese presidents are elected by the members of Parliament. When rival camps coerced enough deputies to forestall a quorum, Mr. Gemayel, a Christian like all Lebanese presidents, tapped General Aoun to head a Cabinet until the issue was resolved. Mr. Hoss immediately established a rival Moslem Cabinet in West Beirut, and unstable Lebanon, racked by 15 years of civil war, began living under rival Christian and Moslem regimes.

In February 1989, General Aoun clamped a blockade on illegal ports that were draining his government's revenues, and the Moslems responded, supported by the Syrian army, which has been deployed in the country since 1976. The ensuing four-month-long artillery war, marked by General Aoun's solemn pledge to drive the Syrians out, cost nearly 1,000 lives and led to an Arab League effort to establish peace.

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