February 3, 2017 / 3:22 PM / 10 months ago

Lebanese president calls for safe zones in Syria for refugees

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanese President Michel Aoun said on Friday world powers must work with Damascus to create safe zones in Syria so refugees can return to their country.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun gestures to his supporters during an event celebrating his presidency, at the presidential palace in Baabda, near Beirut, Lebanon November 6, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/Files

It was the first time the Beirut government had lent its support to such a plan. At least a million people have fled the Syrian civil war since 2011 into Lebanon, which has an estimated total population of less than six million.

Lebanon would not force unsafe return on any refugees, but the international community must make their return possible, Aoun’s office quoted him as saying in a meeting on Friday with U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.

He said it was “important to achieve a political solution” to the conflict. Aoun is an ally of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group which is fighting in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

U.S. President Trump said last week he would “absolutely do safe zones in Syria” for refugees fleeing violence and that Europe had made a mistake by admitting millions of refugees..

According to a document seen by Reuters, Trump is expected to order the Pentagon and the State Department to craft such a plan, a move that could ratchet up U.S. military involvement in Syria.

The Syrian government said on Monday that any attempt to create so-called safe zones for refugees without coordinating with Damascus would be “unsafe” and violate Syria’s sovereignty.

Rebel backers including Qatar have welcomed Trump’s support for safe zones, and Turkey says it is waiting to see the outcome of the U.S. president’s pledge.

Almost six years of war has divided Syria into a patchwork of areas controlled by Assad’s government, various rebel groups, Kurdish militia and Islamic State militants.

The conflict has killed hundreds of thousands of people, made more than half of Syrians homeless and created the world’s worst refugee crisis.

Reporting by Ellen Francis; editing by Andrew Roche

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