ARSAL, Lebanon (Reuters) - A convoy of refugees began leaving the Lebanese border region for Syria on Wednesday, a security source said, the second group to return under an agreement brokered by the Lebanese Shi‘ite group Hezbollah.
The Lebanese army escorted around 250 people out of the border town of Arsal, a security source said. The refugees headed for the Syrian town of Asal al-Ward across the border, northeast of Damascus.
A military media unit run by Damascus ally Hezbollah said the buses carried 60 families.
It is the second batch of people to leave Arsal as part of an agreement for the return of refugees to their hometowns across the border. Hezbollah arranged the deal in indirect talks with the Syrian rebel group Saraya Ahl al-Sham, said an official in the alliance fighting in support of the Damascus government.
Hezbollah also coordinated with the Lebanese military and with the Syrian government separately, securing crossings for refugees who want to leave, the official said.
Since early in the Syrian conflict, Hezbollah has backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, along with Iran and Russia, sending thousands of its forces to fight the mostly Sunni Syrian rebels.
More than 1 million registered Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon, a quarter of its population, the United Nations refugee agency says. The number is widely put at closer to 1.5 million.
They are scattered across Lebanon, mostly in makeshift camps and often in severe poverty, and face the risk of arrest because of restrictions on legal residence and work.
The group of refugees returned on Wednesday as part of a local deal, not a broader agreement. Politicians are deeply divided over whether Lebanon should work directly with the Syrian government over the return of refugees, which Hezbollah and its allies advocate.
Other parties and officials, including Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, are strongly opposed, questioning the safety of the refugees once they return to Syria. The premiere has called for setting up secure areas on the Syrian side of the border to which refugees could voluntarily return under United Nations supervision.
In a televised speech on Tuesday, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah warned that time was running out for Syrian militants along the border near Arsal to reach reconciliation deals with Syrian authorities.
“It’s high time to end the threat of militant groups in Arsal and little time is left to reach certain reconciliation deals,” Nasrallah said. “There are terrorists and planners of attacks in Arsal and this needs a solution.”
Nasrallah praised the security campaign the Lebanese army has been waging in recent weeks against suspected militants.
The army says it regularly stages operations in the hills near the northeastern border against Islamic State and militants formerly linked to al-Qaeda.
In late June, authorities arrested several hundred people in raids on Syrian refugee camps in Arsal. A Lebanese military prosecutor has ordered forensic examinations on the bodies of four Syrians who died in army custody after rights groups called for an investigation.
Reporting by Hassan Abdallah in Arsal, Ellen Francis and Laila Bassam in Beirut, editing by Larry King