ARSAL: A first batch of Syrian refugees left Lebanon on Wednesday for their home country under a new repatriation plan slammed by rights groups, an AFP photographer said.
The latest repatriation effort, announced this month as a 'voluntary' scheme, follows earlier such exercises since 2017.
In the early hours of the morning, dozens of minibuses and trucks left Arsal in eastern Lebanon and drove towards the Syrian border.
The refugees took with them personal belongings and farm animals, the photographer said.
Lebanon's General Security agency said around 750 refugees were expected to return to Syria on Wednesday from several regions.
Syria's official SANA news agency said that "a group of Syrian exiles arrived from refugee camps in Lebanon through the Daboussiye border crossing in central Homs province to return to their safe and terror-free areas."
Hundreds of thousands fled Syria for Lebanon in the early years of the country's civil war, which began in 2011 with the brutal suppression of anti-regime protests.
Around two million Syrian refugees are in Lebanon, nearly 830,000 of whom are registered with the United Nations.
A total of 400,000 refugees have been sent back to Syria in earlier repatriation schemes since 2017, according to the Lebanese security agency.
But human rights groups have categorised the returns as forced, rather than voluntary.
"It is well established that Syrian refugees in Lebanon are not in a position to take a free and informed decision about their return," Amnesty's acting deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, Diana Semaan, said on October 14.
Abbas Ibrahim, General Security Director-General, said on Tuesday: "We will not force any displaced person to return."
Since the Syrian army regained control of most of the country, some host countries have sought to expel refugees from their territories, citing the calmer environment.
But according to rights groups, the relative end of hostilities does not mean that returning home is safe, given that some face prosecution. - AFP