BEIRUT (Reuters) – Samir Geagea, the only Lebanese warlord punished for his role in the 1975-90 civil war, left jail after 11 years on Tuesday in a step toward reconciliation after the end of the Syrian tutelage he bitterly opposed. Welcomed by supporters throwing rice and roses, the leader of the Lebanese Forces, the most powerful Christian wartime militia, was freed under an amnesty law the newly elected parliament, now dominated by foes of Damascus, passed last week.Geagea, 52, was driven to Beirut airport, where he embraced well-wishers and thanked old foes who united to help end Syria’s 29-year grip on Lebanon in April and push for his release. “O Lebanese people, you left the large prison you were put in and took me with you out of the small jail I was put in,” said Geagea in the first speech after his release, before leaving with his wife and aides on a flight to France. Taking aim at Syria’s postwar sway, he said: “The Lebanese house has been shaken and unbalanced as a result of 15 years of frustration, but we will spare no effort to boost understanding with our allies to make the necessary rehabilitation.”Geagea had been serving four life sentences for political murders during the civil war, including the 1987 killing of Prime Minister Rashid Karami, and spent most of his jail time in solitary confinement in an underground defense ministry cell. He has always proclaimed his innocence and said he was victimized for his staunch opposition to Syria. Syria withdrew its troops after the February assassination of ex-Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri caused world outcry. Many Lebanese blamed Syria for the killing. Damascus denied any role.

Scores of flag-waving Geagea supporters danced in Christian districts of Beirut, handing sweets and flowers to drivers.

“Today the war is over. It is time to go forward and consolidate national unity,” one youth said.


Many Maronites viewed Geagea’s imprisonment and the 14-year exile of Christian ex-general Michel Aoun as symbols of Syria’s desire to punish and sideline their once-dominant community.

Aoun returned in May just before Lebanon’s first election after the Syrian withdrawal and now leads an opposition bloc of about 21 seats in the 128-member assembly.

Geagea, who battled Aoun’s forces late in the war, was a hero to many Maronites but many Muslims and some Christians saw him as an Israeli-allied firebrand wedded to Maronite supremacy.

But he struck a conciliatory tone after his release, vowing to work with old foes like Aoun and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

“The conditions of my imprisonment were harsh … but I was strangely contented because I was living by my convictions, even if it was only in a six square-meter space,” said Geagea, who appeared thinner, pale and graying, with a persistent cough.

Champagne corks popped and chocolates in wrappings bearing his picture were handed out at the airport, where Geagea greeted politicians before he left for medical tests and rest in Europe.

While other warlords benefited from a postwar amnesty, Geagea received death sentences, commuted to four life terms. Many of his former enemies joined calls for his release after Hariri’s death fueled opposition to Syria.

Over 100 members of parliament backed the new amnesty, but deputies from the pro-Syrian Hizbollah group walked out before the vote, showing that not all wanted Geagea free.

In Gaza City, dozens of Palestinian refugees protested at the release of a man they called a war criminal for his role in the killings by Israeli-backed Christian militiamen of hundreds of Palestinian refugees in Beirut camps in 1982.

Children held pictures of Geagea bearing the word “killer” during the protest outside U.N. headquarters in Gaza.

“We urge the United Nations to bring Geagea to justice at the International Court of Justice in the Hague for his role in the Sabra and Shatila massacre,” Abdel-Raouf Barbakh, an organizer of the demonstration, told Reuters. (Additional reporting by Ayat Basma in Beirut and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza)