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Assad will stay and refugees must go, says Lebanon president

Former general Michel Aoun, speaking to French TV, warns it is last chance to build strong state institutions in Lebanon
Lebanese President Michel Aoun waves to the crowd during a rally celebrating his election on 6 November, 2016, at the presidential palace in Baabda (AFP)

Lebanon's president has insisted that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria will remain in office, saying he wants Syrian refugees currently in his country to go home.

“President Assad will stay, and those who are asking for his departure are ignoring Syria,” newly elected Lebanese President Michel Aoun told French TV channel LCI on Monday.

Aoun, a former army general during the country’s civil war, was elected president in October, ending a 29-month presidential vacuum as part of a political deal that made Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri prime minister.

“We were facing the prospect of a second Libya here, but for the Assad regime that represents the only power that through its capacities restored the regime, a restoration that has united everyone and the government,” Aoun said.

Aoun is an ally of Hezbollah, Lebanon's Iran-backed party, which is fighting in Syria on Assad’s behalf.

The Lebanese militia and political party were critical to Aoun’s ascendancy to the presidency.

“Lebanon cannot take in Syrian refugees indefinitely on its territory,” the 81-year-old said. “We hosted them for humanitarian reasons, and they must return to their country.”

He said that Lebanon was now at a crossroads, with this being its last chance to build a strong state with institutions that work for the country.

“We must have security forces who are always ready and aware, and must work to strengthen the army.”

On Trump, Aoun said: “This issue is concerning for Americans first most, and Lebanon is a part of this world. He is the one who wants to look again at the (nuclear) agreement with Iran, and considering to move his embassy to Jerusalem.”

Aoun, a Maronite Christian, said he predicted as far back as 1994 that Islamist groups would eventually reach power in the region – but fail. He said the solutions they proposed were from the past in an era that needed contemporary solutions.

“Single-party, and single-religion, and single-race regimes will all not last, and the world of pluralism is the one that will win,” he said.

As president Aoun has limited powers, as all decisions must be approved by the cabinet or the parliament.

Hariri, the son of assassinated former prime minister Rafik Hariri, was endorsed by parliament in November.

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