Interior Minister Nouhad al-Mashnouq on Tuesday defended the army's latest security raids in the eastern border town of Arsal while reassuring that Lebanon will not return any refugee to Syria without “international guarantees.”
“The Lebanese army's conduct during the military operation in the Arsal region was strictly security-related,” Mashnouq said in an interview with Al-Arabiya Al-Hadath television.
“I'm keen on the dignity, security and presence of the refugees... but today we're talking about a military operations zone and not about normal arrests. Five of the takfiri terrorists blew themselves up during the the raids and the army's conduct at that point was purely of a security nature,” the minister added, dismissing accusations of abuse against the refugees.
“What happened in that region should not be summarized by a picture showing detainees lying on the ground as we forget that five terrorists blew themselves up injuring innocents, including refugees and a number of soldiers of whom two might go blind,” Mashnouq said.
“The army entered (the two Arsal refugee encampments) after obtaining information that would-be suicide bombers were preparing to carry out attacks and the relation between the Lebanese and 1.5 million Syrian refugees cannot be minimized to one picture that is being circulated,” the minister went on to say.
Mashnouq explained that the mission of military and security forces is to “prevent the exit of any terrorist from the Arsal region or other regions and foiling any operation that could lead to the death of Lebanese and non-Lebanese civilians.”
And commenting on calls for returning the refugees to Syria, the minister stressed that “Lebanon will not return any refugee without international guarantees,” noting that “only the U.N. can specify the safe zones that the refugees can return to according to a paper that was prepared by the previous government and on which all political forces had agreed.”
The Lebanese army has dismissed allegations of abuse against hundreds of Syrian detainees in the security sweep at the Arsal refugee settlements, saying the mass detentions were necessary to combat terrorism.
Five suicide bombers blew themselves up Friday during military raids in two refugee settlements in Arsal, near the border with Syria. One of them detonated his payload among a Syrian refugee family, killing a girl. Another wounded three soldiers, leaving two of them in critical condition, the official said. During the early Friday raid attackers also tossed explosives at the troops.
The subsequent security sweep sparked accusations of abuse, particularly after pictures surfaced of detainees flat on the ground with their hands bound as Lebanese soldiers stood over them.
The official said the raids on the two settlements in Arsal came after tips about the presence of explosives and a plot to carry out attacks in Lebanon.
The Syrian opposition in exile, the Syrian Coalition, said in a statement Saturday that the military raid also resulted in the death of a number of refugees, but it provided no details. It said it holds the Lebanese authorities responsible for the safety of Syrian refugees, which it added are demanding international protection in Lebanon.
Lebanon, of 4.5 million people, has over 1 million registered Syrian refugees.
Some Lebanese and Syrian activists also took to social media to accuse the army of abuse. The military official rebuffed the accusations.
"The reaction should be to question how a refugee camp turned into a refuge for terrorists," the official said. He said no women or children were detained and that none were deprived of food or drink. He said interrogations were underway and that those not connected to the attacks would be released.
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