Refugees quarter of Lebanon population, country needs help: president

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said the international community must try and help with the influx of Syrian refugees into the country. (AFP)

 The Lebanese president said Monday the presence of one million Syrians alongside a Palestinian refugee population meant that a quarter of the country’s population were now refugees.

Michel Suleiman told Reuters that there should be international action to help Lebanon deal with a deluge of refugees from the war in neighboring Syria, which, he added, has threatened to set his tiny Mediterranean nation ablaze.

"When there is a fire next to your house, you have to assume that it will spread and you have to try to stop it [from] reaching you," Suleiman said.

"Those numbers are more than the capacity of any country to bear," he said. "It's not just a matter of material help and relief – the geographic and demographic capacity is saturated and the problems resulting from this massive number affect us socially, economically and on security."

According to Lebanon, the country is hosting around one million Syrian refugees, one third of whom are officially registered. The United Nations has said that the almost two-year-old Syrian uprising against President Bashar al-Assad has killed approximately 70,000 people.

The Lebanese president called for an international conference to find ways for other countries to take the burden off of Lebanon when it comes to the influx of Syrian refugees.

"The world should think about how to alleviate this burden from Lebanon.... For humanitarian reasons we cannot turn back any refugee who is hungry, wounded, frightened or persecuted," he said. "But what to do if there is an epidemic or hunger?"

"The Syrian refugees should be distributed [to other countries]," he added.

Suleiman – who is a former army chief elected president as part of a peace deal to end sectarian clashes in Beirut in 2008 – also spoke to Reuters about the dangers the Syrian conflict may have on Lebanon.

Dozens of people have been killed in fighting in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli between a Sunni Muslim majority – which strongly supports the Syrian rebels battling Assad - and a minority from the Syrian president’s own Alawite sect.

"There is a danger. We have to keep extinguishing the fire," said Suleiman. "The fire extinguisher should always be in our hands."

"There is an ongoing war, but Syria won't be divided or partitioned. It would be a catastrophe for all the region, but it won't happen," the Lebanese president said, calling for a concerted push by world powers to end the crisis.

"They should find a political solution. It is imperative that they have an international conference because the damage of what is happening will not be confined to Syria, but will hurt all major powers.

"Europe, Russia and the United States and major powers should agree on a solution and should impose it on Arabs and on the Syrians," he declared.

International divisions have paralyzed U.N. Security Council action to halt the Syrian conflict. Russia and China have blocked three resolutions backed by Western and some Arab states aimed at putting pressure on Assad to stop the bloodshed.

"I am very worried about the situation," Suleiman said. "We are working to prevent the explosion. Nobody has any excuse to avoid their responsibilities.”

"Those who benefit from the existing situation have no right to subject the country to a problem," he said, apparently referring to Syria's local partisans including Hezbollah and its allies, who dominate Prime Minister Najib Miqati's government.

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Last Update: Monday, 11 March 2013 KSA 19:34 - GMT 16:34
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