June 29, 2018 / 3:13 PM / 4 months ago

Lebanon's Hezbollah to work with Syrian state on refugee returns

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Hezbollah will work with the Syrian state and Lebanon’s General Security agency to help return Syrian refugees who want to go back home, its leader said on Friday, a project that critics see as premature in the absence of a peace deal.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, whose Iran-backed movement fights alongside Damascus, also said a “very big victory” was coming in south Syria, where an army offensive has made rapid gains against insurgents.

As Syrian government forces and their allies retake more territory, some Lebanese officials have stepped up calls for refugees to leave for parts of Syria where violence died down.

U.N. officials and foreign donor states to Lebanon have said conditions for returns are not yet fulfilled in Syria, where a political deal to end the multi-sided war remains elusive.

In a televised speech, Nasrallah said Hezbollah was establishing a mechanism to return “the biggest possible number” of Syrians refugees who want to go home safely and voluntarily.

“We are ready to help ... and we will continue helping until this matter is settled politically and officially between the Lebanese and Syrian governments,” he added.

In the next few months, Hezbollah will directly collect requests for returns from refugees, deliver them to Syrian authorities, and coordinate with General Security, he said.

Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah has provided vital support to Syria’s military in the seven-year war across the border, helping it regain swathes of the country.

The conflict has driven 11 million Syrians from their homes, including more than one million to Lebanon, nearly a quarter of its population, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR says. The Lebanese government puts the number at 1.5 million.

Nasrallah said without elaborating that “international and local groups” were misinforming Syrian refugees and scaring them out of leaving Lebanon to return home.

Lebanon’s Foreign minister Gebran Bassil, whose FPM party is a political ally of Hezbollah, has pressed for more returns and accused UNHCR this month of preventing Syrians from going back.

UNHCR denies this, saying it supports safe return and respects individual decisions to return, while major foreign donors have voiced dismay at what they called “false accusations”.

Prime minister-designate Saad al-Hariri, who opposes the Syrian government, has said that Lebanon is against forced returns of refugees.

President Michel Aoun has called the influx of mainly Sunni Syrian refugees an existential threat to Lebanon, which maintains a fragile balance between several religious sects.

A Syrian refugee girl who left Lebanon looks through a window as she arrives in Qalamoun, Syria June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Nearly 400 refugees left the Lebanese border region of Arsal for Syria on Thursday, a rare case of returns and a small fraction of the estimated 50,000 living in the town.

Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of General Security, said this was the first batch out of thousands who want to go home.

Still, Ahad Kalkoush, a member of a Syrian refugee council in the town, the bulk of refugees in Arsal will only go back in a U.N.-supervised return, fearing persecution in Syria.

Reporting by Ellen Francis; editing by Andrew Roche, William Maclean

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