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Lebanon's human rights minister calls for probe into Syrian deaths in custody

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon’s human rights minister called on Thursday for an inquiry into the deaths of four Syrians who the military said had died in army custody from chronic illness.

They were among several hundred people arrested last week in a raid at Syrian refugee camps in the Arsal area of northeastern Lebanon on Friday.

“To preserve the army’s image and prevent any rumors that may be malicious, we ask the relevant leadership and judiciary to open a transparent investigation into ... the causes that led to the deaths,” minister Ayman Choucair said in a statement sent to Reuters by his office.

New York-based Human Rights Watch on Wednesday demanded an independent inquiry into the deaths and said anyone responsible for wrongdoing should be held to account.

The Lebanese Center for Human Rights said torture had led to the deaths of at least four detainees. The Syrian National Coalition, a Turkey-based political opposition group, said that 10 people had died in custody and that 19 others had died in the raid in refugee camps around Arsal town.

A military source denied these allegations.

The army said that five suicide attackers had blown themselves up while attacking soldiers during last week’s raid, and one civilian was killed.

A military statement on Wednesday said authorities released 15 Syrian detainees and referred 85 others to the main security agency after interrogations.

The Lebanese army is the fifth-biggest recipient of U.S. military assistance, and has also received support from Britain. The aid is part of efforts to bolster Lebanon against a threat from militants groups at the Syrian border.

A British embassy spokesperson told Reuters the country was in the “frontline of the crisis in Syria and faces a high threat from terrorism”.

“We monitor allegations of human rights abuses closely through our local contacts and encourage the Lebanese Armed Forces to engage with these in an open and transparent way,” embassy spokesperson said.

The U.N. refugee agency says Lebanon hosts more than 1 million registered Syrian refugees, a quarter of its population, although the number is widely put at closer to 1.5 million.

They are scattered across Lebanon mostly in informal tented settlements where many live in severe poverty, facing the risk of arrest due to restrictions on legal residence and work.

The army says it regularly stages operations targeting Islamic State and former al Qaeda-linked militants in the mountainous border region near Arsal.

A number of attacks in Lebanon in recent years have been linked to the war in neighboring Syria, where Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah is fighting in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

Reporting by Tom Perry and Ellen Francis; editing by Ralph Boulton