BEIRUT, AUG. 29 -- Michel Aoun, Lebanon's maverick Christian army general who fought against Syrian influence in his country and defied a U.S.-backed peace plan, was secretly spirited out of his French Embassy hideout at dawn today and sent by sea en route to exile in France.
Aoun had been in hiding at an embassy annex east of Beirut since Oct. 13, 1990, when Syrian warplanes routed him from the presidential palace in Baabda, where he was entrenched with loyal troops. That defeat of the blunt and frank Aoun, who remains one of Lebanon's most popular and controversial politicians, was considered crucial at the time to the implementation of an Arab-brokered plan to end the country's long civil war.
As journalists were led on a wild goose chase with mock motorcades speeding out of the embassy to dead ends and in the direction of Beirut International Airport, Aoun and his small entourage were whisked away in the dark to a small bay at Dbayeh, some six miles north of the capital. Residents there said they saw a well-lit French military vessel approach the Lebanese shore at midnight, but only French security men were allowed near the convoy.
Radio stations quoted Lebanese security sources as saying that Aoun and two of his generals who had been in hiding with him were transported by a small vessel to a submarine. Senior officers in the Lebanese navy said they could not confirm this report. Officials, however, expressed fears that Aoun could be targeted in an assassination attempt.
Aoun, wanted for war and other crimes by the government, was authorized to leave Lebanon under an amnesty approved by the parliament and signed by the Lebanese president only a few hours ahead of their departure. In one of the key conditions for granting the pardon for war crimes, Aoun was banned for five years from political activities or attempting to return to Lebanon. However, he was not exempted from a charge of embezzling state funds. A sum of $31 million is being contested; Aoun insists it was money donated to him by supporters, while the government wants the money.
Aoun and Generals Issam Abu Jamra and Edgard Maalouf spent more than 10 months in hiding after troops loyal to newly elected President Elias Hrawi and backed by the Syrian army crushed Aoun's long mutiny against Syria's military presence and influence in Lebanon.
During his stay in the French Embassy, relations between Beirut and Paris were strained, with the French pressing for permission to take Aoun out of the country. Establishment of Hrawi's Syrian-backed regime, though supported by Washington, constituted a major setback for a tradition of historical and cultural bonds with France, which ruled Lebanon by mandate from 1921 to 1943.
Aoun was appointed army commander in 1984 by then-President Amin Gemayel; in 1988 Gemayel named him acting prime minister. But Muslim leaders refused to recognize his cabinet and set up a rival government in west Beirut. After Hrawi's election as president, Aoun refused to step down, and he launched a campaign against an Arab-brokered peace plan for Lebanon, which he called an act of treason because it failed to guarantee the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. The accord stipulated an even distribution of political power between Lebanon's Muslims and Christians.
Aoun also turned against other Lebanese Christian militias in an inconclusive and bloody battle he hoped would secure his supremacy in the country's Christian community.
Though Aoun's military crusades left about 1,500 dead and 3,500 others wounded, his popularity among common people was legendary. His appeal among the embattled masses, who had become disaffected by corruption and militia rule, was strong and still persists among some soldiers.
Hrawi's government, which groups a host of warlords and militia leaders and has moved to bring peace to the country, has yet to gain the trust and hearts of a cynical Lebanese population still frustrated by long power outages, erratic telephone connections and malodorous piles of uncollected garbage.
Several residents said they were saddened by the departure of Aoun, who in the imagination of some symbolizes defiance against inefficient and unresponsive authority.
Said Alfred Madi, a key member of the rival Christian Phalange Party: "Aoun will remain a myth for lack of better alternatives. The myth is that he is the antithesis of all that is going on, even if it is not so."