Delays, hesitation mark Syrians' return from Lebanon

Delays, hesitation mark Syrians' return from Lebanon

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BEIRUT (AP) — Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees are expected to stay in Lebanon's eastern border region for the near future, as a multilateral effort to resettle several thousand of them ran into further delays on Tuesday.

Some 9,000 Syrian refugees and gunmen were waiting to leave Lebanon's Arsal region to a jihadist-dominated corner of Syria in accordance with an agreement between Lebanon, Syria, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, and a Syrian affiliate to al-Qaida.

But tens of thousands of others still have no plans to leave, for fear of finding war, hardship, and oppressive militant rule waiting for them in Syria's northwestern province of Idlib, said Khaled Raad, a member of the Arsal Refugees' Coordination Committee of the Lebanese government.

Many Syrians have calculated it is better to stay in Lebanon, despite the sweeping restrictions on movement and employment in the tiny Mediterranean country, he said.

"There are people who say Idlib is going to become a second Mosul, and I would rather stay in Lebanon and go to prison than move there," said Raad.

"Those who are staying are unhappy, and those who are leaving are also unhappy," he said.

The U.N.'s refugee agency in Lebanon estimates 51,000 Syrian refugees are in the Arsal region while refugees reached by the Associated Press say the number is closer to 80,000.

The U.N. has registered more than 1 million Syrian refugees in the country, whose native population is estimated to number between 4 to 5 million.

The reasons for the resettlement delays were unclear. Local media reported that the deal hit snags because of new demands by the al-Qaida affiliate, including that Lebanese authorities release a number of militants in Lebanese prison.

Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV station said buses were still trickling in to Lebanon to pick up the 9,000 Syrians seeking to relocate. It said some 200 buses will be in the caravan that transports the Syrians to Idlib.

The deal followed a military offensive by Hezbollah fighters and Syrian troops during which they captured border areas between the two countries and left hundreds of al-Qaida fighters besieged in a small rugged mountainous area. The fighting ended with a cease-fire Thursday for negotiations to allow refugees, fighters, and family members to leave to Idlib province and the central Qalamoun region.

Those electing to leave include refugees afraid they are wanted by the authorities for crimes in Lebanon, including carrying weapons against the state in 2014, when militants briefly overran the town of Arsal before Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army turned them back out.

Those staying hope movement restrictions against the refugees in Arsal will be eased since the al-Qaida-linked militants there have been defeated. The Lebanese Army, which mans the checkpoints in and out of Arsal, could not be reached for comment.

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