Originally published with the title, "Syrian refugees leave Lebanon's Ersal for Syria," on Thursday, August 7, 2014. Source: Agence France Press.
At least 1,700 Syrian refugees have left the eastern Bekaa town of Ersal, where troops have been battling jihadists for days, to go back to Syria, a nun helping them return said Thursday.
The departure appeared to be the first time a group of refugees has left Lebanon en masse to return to Syria, and comes after days of fighting in the border town that has killed 17 soldiers and dozens of militants.
A Lebanese security services official confirmed that the group had left Ersal and was headed to the Masnaa border crossing to leave the country, putting the number of refugees heading out at 1,500.
The Syrian nun facilitating their return, Sister Agnes, who is close to the Syrian regime, told AFP that "1,700 men, women and children have left the Ersal area for Syria".
"They are mostly from the Qalamun region, particularly from Qara,"
she said, referring to a Syrian area just across the border from Ersal, which was largely recaptured by regime forces earlier this year.
Sister Agnes, who heads a convent in Qara, said some of the 47,000 Syrian refugees in Ersal had contacted her around a month ago requesting her help in returning to Syria.
"The formalities were complicated because of the presence of some men who had not done their military service," she said.
But the Syrian government "has put no obstacles in the way of their return."
The nun, who has mediated between regime and rebel forces on several occasions inside Syria, said Lebanon authorities were also facilitating the departure of the refugees, some of whom had entered the country illegally.
She said another 3,000 refugees in Ersal were still hoping to leave and return to Syria.
In the neighbouring town of Labweh, an AFP correspondent saw the refugees packed into some 20 trucks, carrying their belongings as they headed towards the border.
The presence of the refugees in the area, and claims that some of the jihadists had emerged from Syrian refugee camps in Arsal has raised tensions in the region.