BEIRUT: A number of Syrian refugees in the northeastern border town of Arsal have asked to be transferred to a north Syrian border town with Turkey following a Lebanese Army operation in the area, The Daily Star learned Tuesday. The news came after 40 suspects arrested following the attacks in Arsal Friday, proved to have Daesh (ISIS) and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham ties, a senior Lebanese security source said. The Army also said in a statement Tuesday that four suspects in custody had died as a result of pre-existing conditions exacerbated by the high temperatures.
A source told The Daily Star that the refugees in Arsal had forced a delegation of notable figures in the community to liaise on the issue of being moved to Jarablus.
The delegation will assign a negotiator to hold talks with the Lebanese state, Turkish government and the United Nations over the matter.
“The notable group from the civilian Syrians in Arsal formed a delegation in order to negotiate with the three sides in order to [move] the refugees to Jarablus in north Syria,” the source said adding that they chose Jarablus because it was a safe area. The source added that the delegation was also working on dealing with the matter within the legal framework.
Since August 2016, Jarablus, which lies just south of the border with Turkey, has been controlled by Free Syrian Army rebels backed by Turkish troops.
Many displaced Syrians live in the town and the surrounding countryside, though conditions are often poor and access to aid is limited.
The decision taken to move to Jarablus, the source said, came after the Army’s operation last week in Arsal. Early Friday morning, five suicide bombings, an explosive device and a grenade attack were launched against the Lebanese Army in Arsal, leaving seven soldiers wounded and one Syrian child dead.
In the aftermath of the attacks, which took place at the Nawar and Qareiah camps in the town, hundreds of Syrian refugees were detained. Those found not to be connected to the events were swiftly released. “It would be better if refugees leave the area where conflict is taking place and let the Army eliminate all the terrorists,” the source said.
Arsal’s Mayor Bassil Hujeiri told The Daily Star that Syrian refugees in the town have been planning to move to Jarablus. “Jarablus is among the options on the table if safe access is secured. The military operation that happened put pressure on them.”
He said that although some refugees have had reservations about returning back to some areas in Syria, at the moment they appeared to be largely open to the idea. Hujeiri also announced that he would accompany the delegation to an imminent meeting with officials close to Prime Minister Saad Hariri, without elaborating.
Since the attack, there has been some confusion over the final death toll. Hujeiri said that there were four bodies at a hospital and that two bodies were buried. He didn’t provide further details.
There have been unconfirmed reports that 19 people were killed in the Army’s operation. The Daily Star could not independently verify these claims, but a source responsible for the camp told The Daily Star that four bodies had been brought to Al-Rahma Hospital in Arsal after the Lebanese Army’s operation.
Late Tuesday, the Army issued a statement clarifying the reasons behind the death of four Syrian nationals that were arrested after last week’s attacks. “A number of those detained following Friday’s attacks appeared to have severe health problems a routine medical examination conducted after their arrest showed,” the statement from the Army said Tuesday.
“Their conditions deteriorated as a result of the climate conditions,” the statement added.
“They were taken to hospital for treatment before questioning began, but their health conditions deteriorated leading to their deaths.”
The statement identified the four nationals as Mustafa Abdel-Kareem Absi, Khalid Hussein Moulays, Anas Hussein al-Hsaikeh and Othman Merhi Moulays.
The statement said that coroners had drafted reports on the cause of death prompting the Army Command to ensure that all the other detainees undergo medical examinations making sure that none are in need of urgent hospitalization and to determine if any had taken poison that constituted a danger to their lives.
A senior Lebanese security source confirmed that 40 of those arrested following the attacks proved to have ties to terrorist groups. “It transpires that out of the 355 [persons who were detained], there are 40 who are directly connected to Daesh and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham,” the military source said. The rest of the detainees have now been released, he added.
The 40 detainees with militant links will be held for further questions and referred to the judiciary, the source said.
The news also came as Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said Tuesday that investigations into individuals detained last week in the aftermath of the attacks would be brief and the detainees’ fates will soon become clear.
“The Arsal investigations will not take long,” the interior minister said in an interview Al-Arabiya Al-Hadath TV channel. He added: “There is no target against Syrian refugees.”
The Army’s detention of 355 Syrian refugees after the attacks was decried by Syrian opposition groups as well as by some local leaders.
Machnouk brushed off the claims, telling critics that they were not qualified to judge the operation from afar.
“What happened in Arsal was a military operation. When five suicide bombers detonate themselves, dealing with it becomes a purely security-related matter,” Machnouk said.
He added that he was keen to maintain the dignity and the safety of Syrian refugees in the area.
He said that before discussion is focused on the photos of detainees that were circulating with them lying on the ground, Machnouk said that people need to also focus on the events that preceded this action.
“The Arsal operation was not a campaign against Syrian refugees – it targeted terrorists,” he added.
Touching on the issue of Syrian safe zones, Machnouk said that the United Nations was the sole arbiter of where and when refugees can return to Syria.“We will not repatriate any Syrian except based on international guarantees,” he said.
Refugee girl dies in second lethal fire in days
BEIRUT: A young girl was killed and more than 20 others injured Tuesday when a fire swept through a Syrian refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley, the area’s second deadly blaze in a week.
Tuesday’s fire, which tore through Tal al-Sarhoun camp near Barr Elias, killed a 6-year-old girl and injured 21, many of whom are being treated for smoke inhalation.
The cause of the fire was still not clear as of Tuesday night.
Barr Elias Mayor Mouwas al-Araji said the fire started when an electric malfunction caused a light bulb to explode, setting the nylon tent alight.
However, Josep Zapater, head of the office of the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, in the Bekaa Valley, told The Daily Star that the cause of the fire was still being investigated.
The injured were transported by the Lebanese Red Cross to receive medical attention and have since been released, Zapater added.
Another fire Sunday in the Bekaa Valley’s Mindara quarter – between the towns of Al-Marj and Qubb Elias – killed one person, displaced hundreds of refugees and destroyed 100 tents. It also set a wheat field and a pickup truck on fire.
A Civil Defense statement said that blaze was caused by exploding gas canisters. According to Zapater, it was caused by an electric issue, and foul play has not been ruled out. “We’re trying to verify if the fires were provoked,” he said.
What is clear is the fire spread quickly due to the close proximity of the tents, sending thick columns of black smoke into the air that could be seen from afar.
The UNHCR has replaced 30 of the destroyed tents, and the rest should be completed later this week. “We responded quite quickly,” Zapater said. “In principle, the plan is for the people to move back tomorrow.”
Zapater noted that UNHCR has been dealing with fires in the Syrian refugee tented settlements for the last two to three years, though the issue was worse in 2015. In the summer, heat and cooking create perfect conditions for fires, he said.
“Electricity installation [in the camps] is not good,” Zapater explained. “[Summer] heat tends to melt plastic.”
In the winter, when temperatures in the Bekaa Valley drop below freezing, the main cause of fire is gas- and wood-burning heaters. Residents set up stoves inside tents made of plastic sheeting, and when one tent catches fire, it can spread extremely quickly.
UNHCR has distributed fire extinguishers and periodically checks that they are full, but replacing the plastic sheeting tents with less-flammable material is not permitted by Lebanese authorities due to concerns over the establishment of permanent Syrian refugee settlements.
“By humanitarian standards nobody should be under plastic sheeting after six months,” Zapater said.
“After six months we do brick houses for refugees. But anything looking durable looks sensitive for authorities,” he said.
Lebanon currently hosts over 1 million Syrian refugees, whose presence has sparked tensions with host communities and strained already insufficient infrastructure.