BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon announced Saturday that Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations should not to return home as of June 1, warning they will lose their status in this tiny Arab country.
The announcement comes ahead of Syria's June 3 presidential elections, a vote President Bashar Assad is widely expected to win to secure a third seven-year term.
Damascus sees the elections as a means to end the 3-year-old conflict, while the Syrian opposition and its Western allies have denounced the vote as a farce aimed solely at lending Assad a veneer of electoral legitimacy.
Activists say more than 160,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict started in March 2011 as largely peaceful protests against Assad's rule that deteriorated into civil war. The fighting has uprooted 9 million people from their homes, with over 6 million Syrians seeking shelter in safer parts of the country and at least 2.7 million fleeing to neighboring countries.
More than 1 million of them are in Lebanon, leaving the much smaller nation of 4.5 million struggling to cope with the massive influx as many refugees desperately need housing, education and medical care.
"In the framework of organizing the entrance and exit of Syrian citizens to Lebanon, all Syrians registered by the U.N.'s refugee agency, UNHCR, should abstain from entering Syria as of (June 1), otherwise they will lose their status as refugees in Lebanon," the country's Interior Ministry said in a statement carried by the state-run National News Agency.
"This measure is based on the concern about security in Lebanon and the relation between Syrian refugees and Lebanese citizens in areas hosting them and to prevent any friction or provocation," it said.
The ministry's statement came after this week's two-day vote by tens of thousands of Syrians at their embassy near Beirut. Many of them raised posters of Assad and chanted pro-government slogans.
Lebanon's anti-Assad March 14 coalition said those who took part in the vote are not refugees and called on the Lebanese government to "work on deporting them to their country." Lebanese Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk is a member of the Future Movement — which is also part of the March 14 coalition.
The election is scheduled for Tuesday. Several polling stations will be set up on the Syrian side of three Lebanese border crossing points. The ministry's decision appeared aimed at preventing refugees from heading there to vote. Lebanon has seen violence from the Syrian conflict spill into its streets.
Lama Fakih, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, called on the Lebanese government and "all neighboring states to maintain an open border policy for individuals fleeing the conflict."
"It's their responsibility under international refugee law ... to assess whether or not someone is actually fleeing persecution in Syria," Fakih said.
The Lebanese decision came hours after rebels blew up a tunnel packed with explosives in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, killing at least 20 pro-government fighters, activists and rebels said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group said the blast took place near the Zahrawi market not far from the citadel in Old Aleppo. It said clashes followed the explosion.
A powerful rebel alliance called the Islamic Front claimed responsibility for the blast. It said in a tweet that it killed at least 40 government gunmen.
In early May, rebels also used bomb-packed tunnels to level a historic hotel in the Old City of Aleppo that was being used as an army base.
Such explosions have provided a reminder that the rebels, despite setbacks in other parts of the country, remain a potent force.
Associated Press writer Ryan Lucas contributed to this report.