Syrians queue for passports despite reprieve from U.S. strike

DAMASCUS Wed Sep 11, 2013 11:12am EDT

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - The threat of U.S. air strikes on their country may be receding for now, but Syrians queuing for passports in a central Damascus office were taking no chances.

Dozens stood in line for hours on Tuesday, many returning for a second day, seeking passports in case talks over Syria's chemical weapons unravel or the country's protracted civil war reaches once more into the heart of the capital.

Already two million people have fled to neighboring countries, escaping bloodshed in which at least 100,000 people have died, according to the United Nations.

Damascenes remain wary even though U.S. military action in response to a chemical gas attack in Damascus, which Washington blames on President Bashar al-Assad's forces, has been deferred after Syria welcomed a Russian proposal to put its chemical weapons stocks under international supervision and destroy them.

"We just decided it was time we got passports for the whole family," said Raghad, a mother of three in her thirties. Her family has traveled to neighboring Lebanon - where Syrians can stay without travel documents - every time "things got bad here", but are unable to go further without passports.

"Now with all this news, what if we went to Lebanon and couldn't return? We need passports in case we have no choice but to travel to a third country," she said. "For now, based on the latest news, we're staying until something changes."

Raghad is not alone in hedging her bets and watching developments closely. With schools reopening after a long summer break next week, parents face difficult choices about whether to uproot their families.

Amira, a mother of two in her late twenties, expects to take her daughter to her kindergarten in the affluent neighborhood of Malki on Sunday. But like other wealthier Syrians who have the luxury of choice, she is keeping options open.

"We have a place in Beirut, but it needs some fixing up and major cleaning," she said, eating cactus fruit bought from a street vendor, a popular family pastime in the summer months.

"In the worst case scenario, we'll go there and work on it for a few days and settle there. For now though, we're staying."

Down the street, soldiers and armed state security men moved into two schools about two weeks ago when U.S. President Barack Obama seemed to be preparing a military strike against Syria. They are still there.

Activists say armed men in schools and mosques throughout the city had abandoned their posts on the outskirts of the capital for fear they would be targeted.

Asked if he thought the school would be vacated and ready in time to receive students by Sunday, one vigilant-looking soldier guarding the gate said: "Yes, God willing."

DOLLAR FALLS

News of emerging proposals to put Syrian chemical weapons under international control, that might avert a U.S. air strike, pushed the Syrian pound up against the dollar in Damascus.

The currency, which has tumbled in the last two years, recovered to 205 to the dollar on Tuesday from 260 when strikes appeared imminent, residents say.

The pound stood at 47 to the dollar before the Syrian uprising erupted in March, 2011. Its steep fall has led to sharp price increases for food, gas and other basic requirements.

"But they won't bring down the prices," said Maha, a mother of five who works as a part-time housekeeper. "I've seen the dollar go down before, yet all the prices remain the same, or they go up."

Back at the passport agency, officials shouted at people to stay in line, their voices competing with the commotion of screaming babies and restless children, impatient with the bureaucratic paper trail.

When Raghad's turn came, she watched an official wet a dozen stamps, attach them to her paperwork, pound a dozen more ink stamps onto the pages, cut her passport photos to size and affix them with a glue stick.

He repeated the procedure five times, for all members of her family.

"And now, I go up to the third floor for a signature, then come back down to give him my papers, then I pick up the passports in a couple of days," she said. "God only knows if we'll need them. But it's best to have them just in case."

A plane carrying 107 Syrian refugees was due to land in Germany on Wednesday, bringing the first of some 5,000 additional Syrians that Berlin has said it would admit.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees selected the group and brought them via Lebanon. They included orphans, widows with children and a dozen members of Syria's Christian minority.

Germany has urged other European Union states to also accept more Syrian refugees - it and Sweden have granted asylum to two thirds of all Syrians sheltering in the EU.

Berlin has been admitting about 1,000 Syrian asylum seekers a month - some 18,000 since 2011 - mostly those who already had relatives living in Germany.

By contrast, France, the only EU country willing to take military action against Syria, has granted asylum to only 700 Syrians this year and told the UNHCR in response to requests to admit more that its reception system is saturated, the newspaper Le Monde reported last week.

(Additional reporting by Alexandra Hudson in Berlin; Editing by Dominic Evans and Paul Taylor)

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