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Lebanon calls for Syrian guarantees to speed return of refugees

FILE PHOTO: Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil speaks during a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, Russia August 20, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon’s foreign minister urged Syria on Monday to offer guarantees on property rights and military service to encourage Syrian refugees to return home.

Tiny Lebanon has been host to more than a million refugees from neighboring Syria since the civil war there began in 2011, though some have returned as fighting has eased in more and more areas of the country.

“In the process of encouraging returns, the Syrian government can make a big contribution, on top of the reconciliations that are already happening, by giving security guarantees,” Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil told a news conference in Beirut.

More than half of Syria’s pre-war 22 million population was displaced by the war, over 5 million of whom left the country as refugees, mostly to adjacent Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad government’s has recovered most of the country with the help of Russia and Iran, clawing back rebel enclaves in what Damascus calls reconciliation deals.

Bassil, speaking alongside visiting Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, said he hoped the pace of returns would increase and that Damascus could help smooth this with guarantees on “individual property rights and military service”.

Aid agencies that work with refugees have cited concerns over the loss of property and conscription into the Syrian army as big reasons discouraging Syrians from returning, along with fear of reprisals.

Bassil also said guarantees from Damascus would help end what he called an “ongoing campaign of intimidation” to stop refugees from going home, without elaborating.

Reporting By Ellen Francis and Angus McDowall in Beirut with additional reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London; Editing by Mark Heinrich