Syrian refugees in Lebanon more than 1 million

U.N. refugee agency says the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is now equal to a quarter of the country’s resident population

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The number of Syrians registered as refugees in Lebanon after fleeing war in their country has surpassed one million, Agence France-Presse reported the U.N. refugee agency as saying on Thursday.

Refugees from Syria now equal a quarter of Lebanon’s resident population, the UNHCR said, describing the figure as “a devastating milestone worsened by rapidly depleting resources and a host community stretched to breaking point.”

Tiny Lebanon has now become the country with “the highest per capita concentration of refugees worldwide,” said the UNHCR, adding that is “struggling to keep pace.”

“The influx of a million refugees would be massive in any country. For Lebanon, a small nation beset by internal difficulties, the impact is staggering,” UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres said in a statement.

School-aged refugees eclipse the number of Lebanese children in the country's state schools, the U.N. says, and 2,500 new refugees are registered every day.

“The extent of the human tragedy is not just the recitation of numbers,” Reuters quoted UNHCR representative Ninette Kelley as telling reporters in Tripoli. “Each one of these numbers represents a human life who ... have lost their homes, their family members, their sense of future.”

Syrians have also fled to Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt, and the official total of 2.6 million refugees - which understates the scale of the exodus - means Syrians will soon overtake Afghans as the world’s biggest refugee population.

Many millions more have been displaced inside Syria, and the pace has only accelerated in the last 12 months.

Syria’s three-year civil war has killed more than 150,000 people, a third of them civilians, and caused millions to flee.

In a related story, Syria is charging in a letter to the United Nations that opposition groups are planning a toxic gas attack in a rebel-held area near Damascus so they can then blame it on government security forces, Reuters reported.

In a letter dated March 25 and circulated by the U.N. this week, Syria’s U.N. envoy, Bashar Jaafari, said his government had intercepted communications between “terrorists” that showed a man named Abu Nadir was secretly distributing gas masks in the rebel-held Jobar area.

“The authorities also intercepted another communication between two other terrorists, one of whom is named Abu Jihad,” Reuters quoted Jaafari as saying.

“In that communication, Abu Jihad indicates that toxic gas will be used and asked those who are working with him to supply protective masks.”

Jaafari said in the letter addressed to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the U.N. Security Council that this information “confirms that armed terrorist groups are preparing to use toxic gas in Jobar quarter and other areas, in order to accuse the Syrian government of having committed such an act of terrorism.”

A senior Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said of the Syrian intelligence: “I don’t give any credence to that.”

A United Nations inquiry found in December that sarin gas had likely been used in Jobar in August and also in several other locations, including in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Ghouta, where hundreds of people were killed.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed to destroy his chemical weapons following global outrage over the large-scale sarin gas attack in Ghouta in August.

Meanwhile, Syria to agree to a new timetable to remove its chemical weapons by late April.

In a separate letter to Ban and the Security Council, Syria’s Ja’afari also warned that “armed terrorist groups continue to threaten and carry out terrorist attacks against chemical weapons facilities and the chemical substances.”

The senior Western diplomat said: “I don’t think there’s any evidence that any of the groups have any interest in attacking the convoys ... we don't see that as a major risk.”

(With Reuters and AFP)

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