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Hezbollah leader supports Syria ceasefire and political talks

Nasrallah also urged Lebanon to coordinate with Damascus to help refugees to return now that large areas of Syria are safe

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah addresses a crowd in Beirut last October (AFP/file photo)

The Lebanese Hezbollah movement strongly supports the Syrian ceasefire agreed on in Kazakhstan and any truce that could lead to a political solution, its leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Sunday.

Moscow and Ankara brokered a shaky ceasefire in December between the Syrian government and rebel groups opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.

The agreement led to indirect talks last month in the Kazakh capital of Astana, where Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed to monitor the fragile truce.

Several senior Hezbollah commanders and hundreds of fighters have died in Syria, where the Shia Iranian-backed group is fighting in support of Assad.

"Hezbollah strongly supports, not just the Astana ceasefire, any ceasefire agreed upon in Syria," Nasrallah said, in order "to prevent bloodshed and pave the way for political solutions".

Nasrallah said the battle in Aleppo city had changed the path of the Syrian conflict, now in its sixth year.

Syrian government forces, helped by Russian air power and Iranian-backed militia, drove rebel groups out of east Aleppo in December, in Assad's most important gain of the war.

"For six years, Syria faced the risk of the collapse of the state," Nasrallah said in a televised speech. "This danger has been mostly overcome."

Aleppo kick-started the Astana negotiations, "opened the door to a ceasefire...and to political talks in Geneva", he said.

The next round of UN-sponsored talks on the Syrian conflict, now in its sixth year, have been scheduled for 20 February in Geneva.

Meanwhile, the Kazakh Foreign Ministry said government and rebel delegates have been invited to attend meetings in Astana on 15-16 February.

The full recapture of Aleppo also prompted a series of "local reconciliations in several areas in Syria," Nasrallah added, expressing full support for such agreements.

The Syrian government has been steadily suppressing armed opposition around the capital, through sieges, army offensives, and local deals it describes as reconciliations or settlements. Rebel groups and opponents of Assad have assailed the deals as forcible displacement.

At least 1 million people fleeing neighbouring Syria have poured into Lebanon since the start of the conflict.

Refugee return urged

Nasrallah also urged Lebanon to coordinate with Damascus to help refugees to return now that "large areas" of Syria are "safe".

He said Syrian refugees should not be coerced into going home, but added that a string of "victories" by Assad's forces meant it would be safe for many to return.

"Military victories in Syria, the most recent of them the victory in Aleppo... have turned large areas into safe and quiet spaces," Nasrallah said.

He urged "cooperation to return the majority of these refugees to their towns and villages and homes, so they will no longer be refugees sitting in tents or in the streets".

Lebanon has struggled with the consequences of the war in neighbouring Syria since it began in March 2011.

Nasrallah said the process of returning Syrian refugees should be "one of persuasion, not of coercion".

"It is the duty of all Lebanese to deal with this issue in a humanitarian fashion, setting aside political considerations or fears," he added.

He also urged the government in Beirut to engage with its Syrian counterpart on the issue, despite the deep antipathy between Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Damascus.

Hariri accused Damascus of involvement in the 2005 assassination of his father, former premier Rafiq al-Hariri, and backed the uprising against Assad.

"Frankly, the Lebanese government must end its obstinacy... and talk to the Syrian government: is this issue not pressing?" Nasrallah asked.

He called on the government to work with Damascus "and develop a single plan, because this cannot be addressed by Lebanon alone, and begging will not solve our problem".

Lebanon has struggled to deal with the massive influx of refugees, who have added to the pressure on its already stretched infrastructure and economy.

Beirut has regularly called for more international assistance, and President Michel Aoun earlier this month urged the international community to facilitate the safe return of refugees.

At the end of January, Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem also "renewed the invitation of the government to Syrian refugees living in neighbouring countries to return".

He "stressed the country was ready to receive them and grant them a dignified life," state news agency SANA reported.

More than half of Syria's population has been displaced internally or externally by the conflict, which has killed more than 310,000 people.

Almost 5 million people have become refugees.

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