'The voluntary repatriation of around 850 Syrian refugees started'

ARSAL: Syrian children ride a truck carrying their personal belongings at a Lebanese army checkpoint in Wadi Hmeid in the Bekaa valley, after leaving the village of Arsal to return to their homes in Syria’s Qalamoun region. —A

ARSAL: Hundreds of Syrian refugees left Lebanon yesterday for their neighboring home country, an AFP reporter said, the latest such return coordinated between Beirut and Damascus. In Lebanon's eastern border town of Arsal, men, women and children of all ages piled into cars, minivans and tractors.

Security forces checked the identity papers of those about to make the journey back to Syria with suitcases, boxes of food and even live poultry, an AFP photographer said. "The voluntary repatriation of around 850 Syrian refugees started" yesteday morning, Lebanon's state news agency NNA reported. Seven years into Syria's war, Lebanon hosts around 1.5 million Syrian refugees, compared with a local population of 4.5 million.

Over the past few months, more than 800 Syrians have left Lebanon in similar operations organised by the governments of Beirut and Damascus. Several thousand have also independently left in recent years. Syria's state news agency SANA said the first of "hundreds of Syrians coming from Lebanese territory" had arrived and were heading to Qalamun outside the capital.

Syria's ally Russia has also put forward plans to the United States to cooperate for the safe return of refugees to Syria. Moscow has proposed the establishment of working groups in Lebanon and Jordan, to where many refugees have fled, a Russian defence ministry official said on Friday.

An advisor to Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has met Russia's deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov to find out more about the initiative, the premier's office said on Saturday. The step would "help solve the refugees' crisis in Lebanon and put an end to their suffering and its social and economic repercussions on the host countries, mainly Lebanon," it said in English.

Last month Lebanon's Hezbollah said the powerful movement was creating a mechanism to help Syrian refugees return home, in coordination with Lebanese authorities and Damascus. More than 350,000 people have been killed and over half the country's population displaced since Syria's war started with the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011.

White Helmets evacuations slammed

The foreign ministry in Damascus condemned yesterday the evacuation of hundreds of trapped White Helmets rescue workers and their relatives from Syria's south through its arch-foe and neighbor, Israel. More than 400 rescue workers and family members from Syria's southern provinces of Daraa and Quneitra were ferried into Israel on Sunday, then taken into Jordan for resettlement into Western countries.

"The criminal operation that Israel and its tools conducted in the area reveals the true nature of the so-called White Helmets," said a source at the foreign ministry, cited by state news agency SANA. The source repeated the Syrian government's accusation that the rescue force is a front group for "terrorists" and said Damascus had warned the world of its "dangers".

"Words of condemnation are not enough to express the indignation that every Syrian feels towards these despicable conspiracies and the limitless aid from Western countries, Israel, and Jordan to the White Helmets," the source said. The White Helmets is a network of first responders which rescues the wounded in the aftermath of air strikes, shelling, or explosions in rebel territory across Syria.

Hundreds of them were stuck in a pocket of southern Syria, fearing advancing Syrian government forces. Jordan's foreign ministry announced in a statement that the kingdom received 422 Syrian nationals for resettlement in Britain, Germany and Canada. The group receives funding from a number of governments, including Britain, Germany, Canada and the United States, and from individual donors. Other White Helmets members have stayed in the south.

Israel fires at Syrian missiles

In other news, Israel yesterday said its air defenses fired at rockets that approached its territory from neighboring Syria, where regime troops are advancing on opposition forces close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. "Syrian rockets were identified as having been launched as part of the internal fighting in Syria," an Israeli army statement said in English. The statement said two of Israel's newly deployed David's Sling interceptors were launched "in response to the threat to Israeli territory," but added the Syrian rockets fell inside Syria. It did not say if the interceptors hit the rockets.

David's Sling, developed with United States backing, was introduced into service in April 2017 to fill the gap between the longer-range Arrow missile defense system and the shorter-range Iron Dome interceptor. Israeli media said yesterday was the first time it was fired operationally. Israel seized 1,200 square kilometers of the Golan from Syria in the 1967 Six Day war, in a move never recognized internationally.

Israel has been on high alert since June 19, when Syrian government forces launched a Russia-backed offensive to retake Quneitra and Daraa and provinces, adjacent respectively to the Israeli-held section of the Golan and to Jordan. Regime forces have since regained control of most of these two provinces through a combination of deadly bombardment and Moscow-brokered surrender deals. - AFP