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Russia demands closure of Syria's Al-Rukban refugee camp

Syrian refugee patients from the makeshift Rukban camp, which lies in no-man's-land off the border between Syria and Jordan in the remote northeast, cross over to visit a UN-operated medical clinic immediately on the Jordanian-side for checkups, on March 1, 2017. [KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images]
Refugees at a makeshift camp between Syria and Jordan on 1 March 2017 [KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images]

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has called for Al-Rukban refugee camp on the Syria-Jordan border to be closed, claiming that the displaced civilians want to return to their homes which are once again under regime control.

Lavrov yesterday called on US-backed forces nearby to leave the camps in the south of the country "as soon as possible", slamming their presence as a "de facto occupation".

Speaking alongside his Jordanian counterpart Ayman Safadi, he claimed that the US had "unilaterally announced some sort of security zone in the area" and had "refused to discuss closing the camp".

"They argued that humanitarian convoys should be sent to the camp from government areas," he said. "But that only means that they want to make this situation permanent."

The Al-Rukban camp, which lies along the demilitarised area between Jordan and Syria, has been inhabited by more than 60,000 Syrian refugees since 2014, most of whom originate from rural Homs, Hama and Damascus

Since last June, President Bashar Al-Assad has implemented a suffocating siege on the camp, preventing the entry of all medical or food items. In November, US-backed Syrian opposition groups that operate in neighbouring territories confirmed that the regime had tightened the blockade further by closing all roads leading to the area. Two weeks later, some 15 people including two new-born babies died from a lack of supplies.

Whilst hundreds have been driven back into Syria due to the humanitarian crisis over the past few months, most have refused the offer due to fear of arrest and torture by the regime upon their return.

Read: At least 15 killed as Syrian government, rebels exchange fire

Yesterday, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi called for a meeting between American, Russian and Jordanian officials to solve the "major humanitarian issue" of Al-Rukban.

"There can be no solution in Syria except through an American-Russian agreement supported by the international community," he said, adding that a meeting should be held before the end of the month.

The camp is run by a local civil council, tribal leaders and civic humanitarian groups; in February the largest UN humanitarian aid convoy since the start of the Syrian conflict reached Al-Rukban, their first in four months, bringing urgent supplies and an emergency vaccination campaign to the thousands of people stranded in the desert.

However a statement from the Public Relations and Policy Committee released on Saturday has condemned the efforts of the UN as deliberately inadequate so as to persuade refugees to return to the jurisdiction of the regime.

"The siege, starvation and banning of food supplies and baby formula is a crime of genocide encouraged by the international community," the Committee said in a statement addressed to UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres.

"Your silence and the silence of the countries encourages the perpetuation of the siege to force the people to return to areas of regime control," local council head Mohammed Ahmed Al-Drabas added.

The war in Syria has killed more than 600,000 people since 2011, the vast majority by regime-allied forces. More than half of the country's 21 million population has been displaced, and the Assad government, led by the Muslim Alawite minority, has faced accusations of repopulation along sectarian lines. Some 14,000 Syrians are still being held in regime prisons, whilst the fate of a further 82,000 remain unknown.

Read: Syrian Network for Human Rights: 221 chemical attacks in Syria since 2012

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