Russia Helps Set up Center for Returning Refugees in Syria

Russia’s Defence Ministry said on Wednesday that Russian and Syrian authorities had set up a refugee center in Syria to help refugees return home from abroad, Reuters reports. The ministry said in a statement that the Centre for the Reception, Allocation and Accommodation of Refugees will “monitor the return of all temporarily-displaced people and Syrian refugees from foreign countries to their places of permanent residence”.

Syria’s war has killed an estimated half a million people, driven some 5.6 million people out of the country and displaced around 6.6 million within it. The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, says it is not yet safe for refugees to return but it helps those who do choose to go back with their documentation.

As the Syrian army, backed by Iran and Russia, has recovered territory, the map of the conflict has been decisively redrawn in President Bashar al-Assad’s favour and violence has died down in some areas. These developments have led countries such as neighboring Lebanon, where around a quarter of people are refugees, increasingly to talk about refugees returning to Syria.

Russia’s defense ministry said in a separate statement that 336,500 places around the country have been prepared to receive returning refugees, The Moscow Times adds. These areas include 39,000 places in the city of Douma, near the capital Damascus. Douma came back under government control in April after years of siege and a devastating campaign of bombardment.

The ministry also said local committees have been set up around Syria to assess infrastructure and the needs of returnees, and buses have been allocated within local private transport companies to transport refugees. On Wednesday, 335 civilians had returned from abroad, the ministry said. Of them, 293 crossed from Lebanon and 42 from Jordan.

At the same tie, Sputnik reports that the mass evacuation of thousands of people from two Syrian villages in the northwest of the country has begun, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Head of the Russian Center for Syrian Reconciliation Maj. Gen. Alexei Tsygankov said on Wednesday that over 7,000 civilians have been evacuated from the besieged settlements of Foua and Kefraya in northern Idlib province under the agreement between militants and the Syrian government.

“The representatives of the Russian and Iranian sides, in cooperation with the Syrian government, reached an agreement with the leaders of illegal armed formations on the evacuation of civilians from the besieged Shiite settlements of Fua and Kefraya in Idlib province. Under the agreement, about 7,000 people left the settlements,” the official said.

The Shiite-populated settlements of Foua and Kefraya have long been the only strongholds under government control in the militant-dominated Idlib. The towns of some 20,000 people have been under siege since 2013; the humanitarian situation has become dire as aid convoys have been prevented from reaching the towns.

Meanwhile, Vestnik Kavkaza says thatSyria’s government is in talks with Russia on buying Russia’s new MS-21 jet airliner, Russia’s ambassador to Syria Alexander Kinshak said.

“They [Syrians] are interested in updating their plane fleet with our help, they are negotiating the purchase of the Russian MC-21,” RIA Novosti cited the ambassador as saying.

He added that the project to modernize a major Syrian port is at the stage of practical coordination. “I think we will shortly coordinate everything finally and will get down to implementation,” Kinshchak noted. The MC-21 has a flight range of 6,400 kilometers and carries 211 passengers.