Syrians return to their home city by Lebanese border in state-organized trip

Forces loyal to President Bashar Assad carried a flag after taking the town of Qusayr. (File/Reuters)
Updated 07 July 2019

Syrians return to their home city by Lebanese border in state-organized trip

  • The army escorted around 1,000 people to the city
  • However, large sections of the city lie in ruin

QUSAYR, Syria/AMMAN: Qusayr, a once bustling commercial hub in western Syria, has not seen any fighting since government troops, with the help of Lebanon’s powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah group, drove out rebels six years ago.
Large sections of the city lie in ruin and of the thousands who fled the violence, most have not returned. Only about 10,000 people — a tenth of its pre-war population — have come back.
According to former residents living abroad, this is partly because Qusayr, around 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the Lebanese border, is now a security zone where only those with special permission can enter.
The Syrian government appears to want to signal that this is changing: On Sunday, the army escorted around 1,000 people — former residents who fled to other parts of Syria — to the city, where they thronged the streets in celebration.
Several carried the yellow and green flags of the Hezbollah group, an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad which played a crucial role in the defeat of the rebels in Qusayr and other parts of western Syria.
Western intelligence sources say the area remains part of a belt of territory in Syria where Hezbollah maintains a strong presence, including by way of tight control on the movement of people.
Although some former Qusayr residents who took part in Sunday’s trip said they had come back for good, others told Reuters their homes were too damaged to live in.
Jamal Hub Al Deen, 45, said his home in the city had been “razed to the ground” but that he wanted to see with his own eyes what needed to be done to try to come back soon.
“We call on the state to help us financially to build our home,” he told Reuters. When Hub Al Deen left Qusayr due to the fighting, he fled to Homs city, the provincial capital. His journey on Sunday took him along the same route as that of his escape, he said.
The crowd had gathered in Qusayr’s eastern sector where shops were open on Sunday. The neighborhood sustained the least damage in the fighting, but some buildings had visible damage, with some partially destroyed or riddled with bullet holes.
It was to this district that government offices were moved once the fighting ended in mid-2013. Most of those who already returned are state employees and their families.
Some other state-organized initiatives for the return of Syria’s internally displaced — who total 6.2 million — to former rebel bastions have been made public, but the uptake has been modest. Many of these areas remain under heavy security, while in others there are no basic services.
Homs governor Talal Al-Barazi told Syrian state media that the government had organized the trip as part of its drive to eventually return Qusayr’s displaced residents.
But Bazari said at least 30% percent of the city had been destroyed and reconstruction would not be completed quickly.
“(Qusayr’s reconstruction) needs time,” Barazi told state owned Ikhbariyah television.
Qusayr and its surroundings have long been a route for smugglers. Rebels made use of it before their defeat and it is now a main supply route for Hezbollah into Syria.
This has made the area a target for Israel, which regularly carries out air strikes inside Syria against Iranian backed forces.
Qusayr’s residents who fled to other parts of Syria are only part of the story: Thousands of others sought refuge in Lebanon, many settling in the town of Arsal. Bazari said their homecoming depended on security clearances and basic services being restored.
For now, any prospect for their return looks unlikely.

Turkish police arrest journalist Altan a week after his release

Updated 50 min 27 sec ago

Turkish police arrest journalist Altan a week after his release

  • Altan and the others deny the charges against them
  • On Tuesday a higher court overruled the decision to release Altan, ordering his arrest on grounds that there was a risk of him fleeing

ISTANBUL: Turkish police detained prominent journalist and author Ahmet Altan late on Tuesday, a week after he was released from prison in his retrial on coup-related charges, Istanbul police said.

Before his release last Monday, the 69-year-old had been in jail since his arrest in 2016, two months after an attempted coup which Ankara says was orchestrated by the network of US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.

The journalist’s case has drawn criticism from human rights groups and Turkey’s Western allies. They are concerned by the scale of a post-coup crackdown against suspected Gulen supporters under President Tayyip Erdogan.

Altan smiled and waved as he was driven away by counter-terror squad police officers after being taken from his home in Istanbul, video and photos published by Turkish media showed.

He was taken to Istanbul police headquarters after a hospital check-up, state-owned Anadolu news agency reported.

Altan, his brother and other journalists were previously sentenced to life in jail for aiding Gulen’s network. Last week he was convicted again in a retrial, but released from jail given the time served.

Altan and the others deny the charges against them.

On Tuesday a higher court overruled the decision to release Altan, ordering his arrest on grounds that there was a risk of him fleeing, Anadolu reported.

Under last week’s verdict, Altan was sentenced to 10 years and six months in jail. Turkey’s high court had overruled the previous life sentences against him in July, sending the file back for re-trial.

Erdogan’s government has jailed more than 77,000 people pending trial since the failed putsch. Widespread arrests are still routine in a crackdown critics say demonstrates growing autocracy in Turkey.

Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999, and his followers deny any involvement in the coup. Turkey has repeatedly called on the United States to extradite the cleric.