Lebanon's Prime Minister Najib Mikati (Photo:Reuters)
Lebanon is committed to providing shelter to Syrians fleeing the unrest in their country, Prime Minister Najib Mikati said on Thursday, responding to concerns expressed by Washington.
"My approach to these refugees coming to Lebanon is purely humanitarian," Mikati told AFP, estimating their number at 5,000.
"We are assisting these people ... providing them with medical assistance, schooling and shelter."
Earlier this week, the US ambassador to Lebanon Maura Connelly urged Lebanese authorities to protect members of Syria's opposition living in the country, following reports some were being hunted down and sent back to Syria.
There are also defecting Syrian soldiers crossing the border into Lebanon.
Asked whether his position on providing shelter to Syrian refugees extended to members of the opposition or defecting soldiers, Mikati would only say that Lebanon was committed to helping "Syrian citizens".
He said he had no case before him of anyone arrested or sent back to Syria and insisted that Lebanon's position on the issue was purely humanitarian.
Responding to reports of cross-border incursions by Syrian troops into Lebanese territory, Mikati said a joint Syrian-Lebanese committee was closely following the matter.
"I am not being silent about this, we are dealing with the issue normally," he said, noting the permeability of the border.
"I don't want to blow these incidents out of proportion and I don't want to belittle them either.
He also refused to be drawn on his government's position on developments in Syria, saying his goal was to ensure the crisis did not spill over into Lebanon, where Damascus has traditionally exerted much influence.
"As far as Syria is concerned, we have always said we are trying to isolate ourselves as much as possible from what is going on," said Mikati, whose four-months-old government is dominated by the powerful militant Hezbollah and its allies, which support the Syrian regime.
"I cannot do anything today but protect Lebanon's national unity."
He acknowledged, however, that the seven-month revolt threatening the regime of Bashar al-Assad was having economic repercussions on Lebanon.
"Exports from Lebanon to Syria are shrinking and this will affect the Lebanese economy," he said.