French commando lifts lid on dramatic 1991 rescue of Lebanon's Aoun

Rear admiral says the former leader was reluctant to put on a rain jacket

Michel Aoun in his office in Beirut in1989. AFP
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Lebanon’s former president Michel Aoun had to be persuaded to put on a raincoat when French special forces spirited him out of the country in 1991, a French officer has revealed.

Mr Aoun — who left office a second time last month after reclaiming power in 2016 — was whisked away in a secretive mission after taking refuge in the French embassy.

He headed into exile after losing a violent power struggle at the end of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war.

But he appeared to have second thoughts after French special forces arrived on a beach to take him to safety.

“One of the biggest difficulties we had at the time was getting General Aoun to put on a rain jacket,” said rear admiral Bertrand de Gaullier des Bordes, who led a French commando unit.

“I think it was probably a pretext for him to not leave Lebanon, but he didn’t want to put on the sea clothing.

“Eventually he did, and it was very useful for him because the sea was a bit tricky when we left and it was very wet.”

The rear admiral’s recollections came as part of a new exhibition on the history of the French special forces.

He said the 1991 operation involved “everything you see in special forces films”, with an armoured car waiting as French troops with lights and radios pulled up to the beach.

The rescue mission was arranged with the French embassy where Mr Aoun had taken sanctuary in 1990, following his defeat by Syrian and Lebanese forces.

Mr Aoun, now 89, feared for his safety after surviving at least one assassination attempt and was granted asylum by France, the former colonial power in Lebanon.

Reports at the time described decoy cars being used to lead potential witnesses astray while Mr Aoun was driven to the beach at dawn.

The aftermath of an explosion in West Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. AFP

Smuggled away to France, he lived in exile until 2005 — before returning to Lebanon and eventually winning the presidency.

In other stories from the exhibition, French elite forces recalled tense moments in Afghanistan, Mali, the former Yugoslavia, and while fighting alongside Kurdish forces.

France’s Army Museum called it the first exhibition to “lift the veil on one of our military’s most secretive entities”.

Eric Vidaud, a former special operations commander, recalled a bizarre episode in which a Serbian general promised to comply with peace accords if the Frenchman could beat him at shooting practice.

After Mr Vidaud proved the better pistol shooter, he diplomatically declared the contest a draw and the Serbs pulled back their troops days later, he said.

Another French trooper recalled saving the life of a Kurdish fighter who had inadvertently set off an improvised explosive.

The sergeant, named as Charlie, managed to stem the man’s bleeding after his legs were blown off in the explosion, which was apparently triggered by motion sensors.

“My work … sometimes involves taking lives, but my fondest memory is of having saved a life,” he said.

Updated: November 11, 2022, 12:16 PM