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Thousands of Syrians from Qalamoun flee to Lebanon
Syrian refugee children play with a garbage bin bearing the European flag in a refugee camp on November 15, 2013 near the village of Dalhamiyah in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa valley. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID
Syrian refugee children play with a garbage bin bearing the European flag in a refugee camp on November 15, 2013 near the village of Dalhamiyah in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa valley. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID
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HERMEL, Lebanon: Hundreds of Syrian families from Qalamoun and the outskirts of Homs have fled to Arsal, northeast Lebanon, the Social Affairs Ministry said Saturday, in what one official from the border area described as an “unprecedented” influx of refugees into the country.

“The eastern Bekaa Valley region, particularly the town of Arsal, witnessed Friday night and [early] Saturday a large influx of Syrian families and they number some 1,200 families, the majority of whom are from Qalamoun and the outskirts of Homs,” a statement from the ministry said.

The Qalamoun, a mountainous area lying roughly north of Damascus and adjacent to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, is expected to be a new front in the war between rebels and forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar Assad.

Ahmad Fliti, Arsal’s deputy mayor, told The Daily Star earlier Saturday that more than 1,200 Syrian families had arrived in his town since Friday morning, adding that mosques and wedding halls were being used to accommodate what he said was an “unprecedented record number” of refugees.

Fliti said 90 percent of Qara, in Syria’s Qalamoun, had been evacuated after the Syrian army issued warnings it would launch an attack on rebel groups there.

He also appealed to humanitarian organizations for help, saying their immediate assistance was needed.

Although the exact number of Syrians to arrive in Arsal could not be determined, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees described the flow of refugees to the Lebanese border town as “much higher than usual.”

“Local authorities were speaking of over 800 Syrian refugee families having arrived from Qara to Arsal, mostly between yesterday [Friday] and this morning [Saturday],” Dana Sleiman told The Daily Star.

An Arsal-based activist told The Daily Star that more than 500 pick-up trucks had transported the families from Qara into Arsal, estimating the number of refugees at more than 10,000 by early Saturday.

The activist, who works with refugees, added that the crossing of Syrians into Arsal had abated by Saturday morning.

The influx marks a significant increase in the number of refugees in Arsal, a town that already hosts a refugee population of more than 30,000.

Lebanon’s Social Affairs Ministry said it was responding to the increase in refugee numbers entering the Bekaa Valley, particularly Arsal.

“Concerned agencies at the Social Affairs Ministry were put on full alert to confront this influx,” it said in a statement.

The statement said a team from the ministry, accompanied by a team from the UNHCR, was dispatched to the area to assess the situation and take “the necessary measures.”

Steps taken by the ministry included health checks for the majority of refugees that arrived Friday night, the provision of immediate assistance and temporary accommodation.

The ministry said it had managed to register 420 families so far and “the operation [to register the refugees] is ongoing.”

Lebanon has increasingly felt the impact of the lingering conflict in its Arab neighbor and hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees in the region.

In its latest report on the Syrian refugee situation in Lebanon published Friday, the UNHCR said the number of displaced in the country stood at 816,000, with around 11,000 newcomers between Nov. 8 and Nov. 15.

The movement of refugees into Arsal comes only days after a security source told The Daily Star two Syrian aircraft targeted the outskirts of the northeastern Lebanese area.

According the source, two Syrian gunships fired rockets Thursday at locations linking Qalamoun to Arsal, a predominantly Sunni town which strongly supports the uprising against Assad.

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