Russia’s top diplomat called Sunday for the immediate closure of a desert camp near Syria’s border with Jordan housing tens of thousands of displaced people in dire conditions.
Speaking during a visit to Amman, Sergei Lavrov called for the Rukban camp to be closed “as soon as possible” and slammed a “de facto occupation” by American forces at a nearby garrison.
Nearly 50,000 Syrians live at the camp near the Al-Tanf base used by the US-led coalition fighting ISIS extremist group.
“According to UN observers who visited the camp, most of the displaced people there want to return home, including to territories controlled by the Syrian government,” Lavrov said.
“It is necessary to stop the efforts preventing their freedom. I can say this because they do not feel free in this camp.”
The Syrian government and key backer Russia said in February they had opened corridors out of the camp, calling on residents to leave.
Two weeks later, the UN said no civilians were believed to have left, for fears over their safety.
Conditions inside the settlement are dire, with many surviving on just one simple meal a day, often bread and olive oil or yoghurt, according to one resident.
Speaking alongside his Jordanian counterpart Ayman Safadi, Lavrov said Moscow was ready to discuss “all steps needed” to help people leave Rukban.
“The most simple and effective solution would be to end the American occupation,” he said.
He said the US had “unilaterally announced some sort of security zone in the area” and had “refused to discuss closing the camp.”
“They argued that humanitarian convoys should be sent to the camp from government areas,” he said.
“But that only means that they want to make this situation permanent,” he added.
US President Donald Trump announced in December that he would withdraw American troops from Syria.
But his national security adviser John Bolton said the following month that some forces could remain at the al-Tanf garrison as part of efforts to counter the presence of Iran, the Syrian regime’s other main backer.
Safadi called on Sunday for a meeting between American, Russian and Jordanian officials to solve the “major humanitarian issue” of Rukban.
“There can be no solution in Syria except through an American-Russian agreement supported by the international community,” he said.
Syria’s civil war has killed at 370,000 people and displaced millions since it started with the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011.