Death toll in Syria blast climbs to 69

BEIRUT: The number of people killed when an explosion ripped through a building thought to be storing weapons in rebel-held northwestern Syria has climbed to 69 including 17 children, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Monday.
The explosion happened in a residential building in the town of Sarmada in Idlib province near the Turkish border on Sunday. Idlib forms part of the last major rebel stronghold in Syria.
The Syrian White Helmets, a group of rescue workers established in rebel-held areas of the country, also said on Twitter that 36 people were dead and dozens were wounded in the explosion, and that so far 10 people had been pulled alive from the rubble after the dawn explosion.
They said the cause of the blast, which brought down the whole multi-storey building block, was unknown.
Meanwhile, dozens of Syrian refugees were expected to leave Lebanon on buses in the latest of a wave of returns to their war-torn country, a general security
spokesman said.
An AFP photographer in the southern town of Shebaa saw women and children wait to board buses, while men loaded belongings on the back of a large pick-up truck.
“Ten buses from Syria arrived in Shebaa and at the Masnaa border crossing to transport around 200 refugees to their villages in Syria,” spokesman Nabil Hanoun said.
Lebanese state news agency NNA said “several refugees returned to Syria with their own private vehicles” through Masnaa, without giving a figure.
Syrian state news agency Sana said preparations had been made to “receive hundreds of displaced returning from Lebanon to their homes in the Damascus countryside”.
Lebanon hosts around 1.5 million Syrians who fled the civil war across the border.
Since April, more than 2,000 Syrians have headed home from Lebanon in such returns coordinated by the authorities in Beirut and Damascus, according to an AFP tally of official figures.
Lebanese authorities insist the returns are voluntary.
Human rights groups have warned that Syrians returning to their homeland should do so of their own free will and with full knowledge of the risks.
According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, around 13,000 Syrians went home from Lebanon during the first six months of this year.
More than 350,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since Syria’s war started with the repression of protests in 2011.
But President Bashar al Assad has called for displaced Syrians to return after his troops ousted rebels and militants from large parts of the country.
Last month, Russia presented the United States with plans for the coordinated return of refugees to Syria.
The proposal includes the establishment of working groups in both Lebanon and Jordan, involving US and Russian officials.
Earlier this month, Syrian state media said the government was to set up a committee to coordinate repatriating millions of its nationals.
Last week, Lebanon’s General Security agency announced it had opened 17 centres across the country to receive applications for Syrians who want to travel back home. — Agencies