Lebanon official urges restrictions on Syrian refugees after slaying blamed on Syrian gang

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s caretaker interior minister said Tuesday that this week’s slaying of a local politician by what authorities say was a gang of Syrian nationals signals the need to restrict the number of refugees entering the country from neighboring Syria.

Bassam Mawlawi also urged Lebanese to show restraint amid flaring tensions over the slaying of Pascale Suleiman of the Christian nationalist Lebanese Forces party, which has prompted anti-Syrian violence and worsened political tensions among deeply divided Lebanese. Lebanese military officials have said the slaying in northern Lebanon was part of a robbery, but Suleiman’s party suspects political motives.

The tiny Mediterranean country of over 6 million people, including refugees, hosts what the U.N. refugee agency says are nearly 785,000 U.N.-registered Syrian refugees, of which 90% rely on aid to survive. Lebanese officials estimate the actual number could be as high as 1.5 or 2 million.

“We are seeing more crimes committed by Syrians,” Mawlawi said at a news conference following a meeting with security and military officials, adding that some 35% of detainees in Lebanon’s prisons are Syrian nationals.

“The Syrian presence in Lebanon must be limited, and we emphasized to the security forces of the need to strictly enforce Lebanese laws on displaced Syrians.”

Videos have circulated of angry Lebanese beating Syrians on the streets and destroying cars with Syrian license plates in different parts of the country following Suleiman’s disappearance Sunday and the discovery of his body on Monday. The death has also exacerbated political and sectarian strife among Lebanon’s divided political groups.

“I call on the Lebanese to be rational, and not to be drawn into reactions and incidents that harm security,” Mawlawi said, echoing a statement from Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s office urging restraint.

The Lebanese Forces is the most outspoken opponent of the Islamic militant group Hezbollah, and many partisans and allies were quick to accuse the Iran-backed group of being involved in the attack on Suleiman. Hezbollah’s opponents are critical of the group’s ongoing clashes with the Israeli military after the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip that have sparked fears of war spilling over into Lebanon.

Lebanon’s military said late Monday that Suleiman was killed when a gang of Syrian nationals tried to steal his car. But the Lebanese Forces have cast doubt on those findings, saying they believe it was a political assassination.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah slammed the Lebanese Forces party and its allies for what he said were baseless accusations and dangerous sectarian rhetoric.

Three judicial officials told The Associated Press that three apprehended Syrian nationals, one woman and two men, have told authorities that they worked for a theft gang whose leader was in Syria.

Suleiman resisted the theft of his car and the assailants hit him several times with the back of a pistol before throwing him into the trunk of the car where he is believed to have suffocated, the officials said. The body was taken into Syria near northeastern Lebanon, and returned to Lebanon on Tuesday.

The officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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