June 14, 2018 / 1:00 PM / 4 months ago

Lebanon's president says phased return of Syrian refugee now possible

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanese President Michel Aoun said on Thursday refugees in Lebanon could begin a phased return to areas of Syria that have become safe, and that should happen before a political solution is reached for the conflict.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun speaks during a meeting in Rome, Italy, November 30, 2017. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

“Lebanon considers that a return has become possible in stages to areas that have become safe and stable in Syria, which are five times the size of Lebanon. Most displaced people in Lebanon are from these areas which have become secure,” Aoun said on his Twitter page, in remarks to the ambassadors from the countries in the International Support Group for Lebanon.

As Syrian forces and their allies retake more territory, Lebanon’s president and other politicians have increasingly called for refugees to go back to areas where fighting is over before a deal is reached to end the war. The international view is that it would not be safe for them to return yet.

“Political commitments change with developments on the ground, making us unable to wait for a political solution to the Syrian crisis before the displaced start to return,” he said.

The U.N. has registered about a million refugees in Lebanon - nearly a quarter of Lebanon’s population. The Lebanese government, which puts the figure at 1.5 million, says their presence has strained public services and suppressed economic growth.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil in the past week has escalated a row with the United Nation’s refugee agency UNHCR, accusing it of working to stop refugees from returning to Syria .

UNHCR has denied the accusations, saying it supports the return of refugees when it is safe for them to go back to Syria and that it helps those who choose to return with their documentation.

Reporting by Lisa Barrington, editing by Larry King

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