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Tensions High in Lebanon as US-led Coalition Strikes Syria

  • Heather Murdock

As a U.S.-led coalition begins bombing Islamist militant targets in Syria, tensions are soaring in neighboring Lebanon. Syrian refugees continue to clamor to get in, fleeing battles and bombings. Violence is crossing the border into Lebanon, along with mistrust and fear.

At this refugee camp in Lebanon, Syrian children jump in front of the camera, repeating what roughly translates to the slogan: “Victory or death.”

More than 1 million Syrian refugees are packed into Lebanon, a country of less than 5 million people.

At this refugee camp, families crowd into one-room homes they built with plywood and cloth. The camp sheik, and father or grandfather to many of the people who live here, Khader al-Harfoush, said the families had no choice but to run.

He said the families in this camp stayed in Syria until their homes were under attack, and they ran away barefoot, with only the clothes on their backs.

Refugees say while Lebanon’s borders with Syria are technically open, many Syrians are not being allowed to cross for security reasons.

Last month, Islamist militias with Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front came in from Syria and attacked a border town in Lebanon, capturing Lebanese soldiers and killing others before retreating back into Syria. Militants later killed three soldiers and threatened more executions.

Two more Lebanese soldiers were killed last week by a roadside bomb.

At the camp, Ghuda Mohammad, her husband, and four children survive solely off aid vouchers worth less than $200 a month. She said the recent killings have caused authorities and regular Lebanese people to suspect that some Syrians support militant groups.

She said she feels like an outsider here, constantly watched with fear.

Other refugees joke that security forces think all Syrians support the Islamic State. But the jokes draw more sighs than laughter.

By the end of the year, officials expect there will be 1.5 million Syrians in Lebanon. U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said for the Lebanese, the war is affecting every aspect of their lives.

"The impact on the daily life of the Lebanese, on their salaries, on their rents, the impact on their school system, the health system, the infrastructure, water, electricity, all this requires massive solidarity from the international community,” he said.

The United Nations said the hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid is not enough to support the 3 million Syrians who have fled to other countries.

In less than a week more than 100,000 Syrians fled to Turkey, as Islamic State fighters continue to capture lands.

But as al-Harfoush, the grandfather-sheik, passes around a single cup of coffee, a tradition symbolic of friendship and unity, he said no amount of aid will be enough for the people who can not go home.

He insisted people often forget refugees are people, too. "They just want to go home," he said, "and live their lives like they did before the war, when they were happy and their children were safe."

UNHCR contingency plan for Syrian Kurd refugees

Meanwhile, the United Nations refugee agency said on Tuesday it was making contingency plans for all 400,000 inhabitants of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani to flee into Turkey to escape advancing Islamic State militants.

Some 138,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees have entered Turkey in an exodus that began last week, and two border crossing points remain open, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said.

"We are preparing for the whole population fleeing into Turkey. The population of Kobani is 400,000,'' UNHCR chief spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told a news briefing in Geneva.

"We don't know, but we are preparing for that contingency.''

Syrian Kurds battled to defend a key border town from an Islamic State advance on Monday as Kurdish youths from Turkey rushed to their aid.

"Our biggest worry would be if Kobani itself fell,'' Rupert Colville, U.N. human rights spokesman, told the briefing.

At least 105 villages around Kobani have been captured by Islamic State forces since Sept. 15, including at least 85 over the weekend, he said. The U.N. rights office had reports that an additional 100 villages had been abandoned or evacuated for fear of being captured, he added.

The Kobani region is also host to between 200,000 and 400,000 Syrians displaced from other parts of the country including Raqqa, Aleppo and Homs, Colville said.

Fleming called for support for the government of Turkey and other neighboring countries hosting more than 3 million Syrian refugees: "The 138,000 who just arrived in Turkey represents the number that all of Europe has taken in three years of the Syria war.''

Some material for this report came from Reuters

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