BEIRUT: U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon Robert Watkins visited the Bekaa border town of Arsal Thursday, a day after Syrian forces briefly kidnapped a farmer and planted land mines along the eastern border.
Speaking from Arsal, Watkins said that he was due to meet with displaced Syrian families and Lebanese host families to see their situation firsthand.
“I know this is a very difficult time for both of them as well as for the residents of the border area,” Watkins said.
“The United Nations is committed to continue assisting the Lebanese authorities in addressing the humanitarian needs of these people.”
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR estimates that there are nearly 8,000 displaced Syrians in the Bekaa, out of a total of around 26,000 in the country, although some local charity workers say the number is far higher.
The Lebanese government’s Higher Relief Committee currently only operates in north Lebanon, although the UNHCR has an office in Arsal and is registering refugees there and distributing aid to them.
“We would welcome a decision that would permit the HRC to operate throughout Lebanon to ensure a more efficient and coordinated response to the needs of the Lebanese and displaced population,” Watkins said Thursday.
“I have been impressed by the generosity and hospitality of the Lebanese host families who have offered their homes to the displaced Syrians, despite the difficult socio-economic circumstances they face themselves. We hope this crisis will be resolved soon so that all the displaced Syrians can return to their homes as soon as possible,” he added.
Watkins met with head of the Arsal Municipality Ali Hujeiri, saying he discussed with him “the situation along the Lebanese-Syrian border and the impact of recent events on the resident population.”
“The United Nations has condemned these incidents that have included kidnappings and in some cases fatalities. These incidents also highlight the importance of border management and delineation in this area,” Watkins added.
The trip marked Watkins' first to the Bekaa region since his appointment as humanitarian coordinator earlier this year.
Earlier Thursday, Watkins met with Internal Security Forces Brig. Gen. Emile Atallah, the head of the ISF in the Bekaa, in the Zahle Serail, where they discussed tensions in Arsal.
Watkins also met with Brig. Gen. Abdel-Salam Samahat, head of Army Intelligence in the Bekaa, for talks on the situation on the Lebanon-Syria border.
Watkins is due to meet with political and security representatives in the Bekaa towns of Baalbek and Zahle later Thursday.