Civilians travel with their belongings on vehicles as they leave the Sunni Muslim border town of Arsal, in eastern Bekaa Valley August 7, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)
At least 1,700 Syrian refugees have left the Lebanese town of Arsal, where troops have been battling jihadists for days, to go back to Syria, a nun helping them return said Thursday.
The departure appeared to be the first time a group of refugees has left Lebanon en masse to return to Syria, and comes after days of fighting in the border town that has killed 17 soldiers and dozens of militants.
A Lebanese security services official confirmed that the group had left Arsal and was headed to the Masnaa border crossing to leave the country, putting the number of refugees heading out at 1,500.
The Syrian nun facilitating their return, Sister Agnes, who is close to the Syrian regime, told AFP that "1,700 men, women and children have left the Arsal area for Syria".
"They are mostly from the Qalamun region, particularly from Qara," she said, referring to a Syrian area just across the border from Arsal, which was largely recaptured by regime forces earlier this year.
Sister Agnes, who heads a convent in Qara, said some of the 47,000 Syrian refugees in Arsal had contacted her around a month ago requesting her help in returning to Syria.
"The formalities were complicated because of the presence of some men who had not done their military service," she said.
But the Syrian government "has put no obstacles in the way of their return."
The nun, who has mediated between regime and rebel forces on several occasions inside Syria, said Lebanon authorities were also facilitating the departure of the refugees, some of whom had entered the country illegally.
She said another 3,000 refugees in Arsal were still hoping to leave and return to Syria.
In the neighbouring town of Labweh, an AFP correspondent saw the refugees packed into some 20 trucks, carrying their belongings as they headed towards the border.
The presence of the refugees in the area, and claims that some of the jihadists had emerged from Syrian refugee camps in Arsal has raised tensions in the region.
Most of the Syrian refugees are Sunni Muslims, like the residents of Arsal, where they were largely welcomed, but they have been viewed with suspicion by many in the Shiite town of Labweh.
As the trucks carrying the refugees passed through Labweh, some residents swore at them and jeered.
Syria's conflict, which began in March 2011, has stoked existing political and sectarian tensions in Lebanon.
Many of the country's Sunnis back the Sunni-led uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, but much of the Shiite community, including the powerful Hezbollah movement, support the Syrian regime.