SHEBAA, Lebanon – Dozens of Syrian refugees left Lebanon by bus on Monday in the latest of a wave of returns to their war-torn country, Lebanese authorities said.
An AFP photographer in the southern town of Shebaa saw women and children wait to board buses, while men loaded belongings on the back of a large pick-up truck.
Lebanon’s General Security agency “secured the voluntary return of 137 displaced Syrians from the areas of Shebaa and central Bekaa through the Masnaa border crossing towards Syria,” it said it a statement.
Lebanon hosts around 1.5 million Syrians who fled the civil war across the border, many of them in the Bekaa Valley in the east of the country.
Lebanese state news agency NNA said “several refugees returned to Syria with their own private vehicles” through Masnaa, without giving a figure.
Syrian state news agency SANA said the returnees had begun arriving in Syria.
It earlier said preparations had been made to “receive hundreds of displaced returning from Lebanon to their homes in the Damascus countryside”.
Since April, more than 2,000 Syrians have headed home from Lebanon in such returns coordinated by the authorities in Beirut and Damascus, according to an AFP tally of official figures.
Human rights groups have warned that Syrians returning to their homeland should do so voluntarily and with full knowledge of the risks.
According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, around 13,000 Syrians went home from Lebanon during the first six months of this year.
More than 350,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since Syria’s war started with the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011.
But President Bashar al-Assad has called for displaced Syrians to return since his regime ousted rebels and jihadists from large parts of the country following a massive military intervention by regime ally Russia.
Last month, Russia presented the United States with plans for the coordinated return of refugees to Syria.
The proposal includes the establishment of working groups in both Lebanon and Jordan, involving US and Russian officials.
Earlier this month, Syrian state media said the government was to set up a committee to coordinate repatriating millions of its nationals.
Last week, Lebanon’s General Security agency announced it had opened 17 centres across the country to receive applications for Syrians who want to travel back home. (AFP)