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Lebanon uses Arab summit to call for return of Syria refugees

Playing host to an Arab economic summit, Lebanon also proposed creating an Arab bank to finance reconstruction in war-torn nations
Aoun expressed his "regret" that most Arab heads of state had failed to attend the summit (AFP)

Lebanon urged world powers to step up efforts for Syrian refugees to return home regardless of a political solution to the conflict in its war-wracked neighbour, as it hosted an Arab economic summit

It also proposed on Sunday the creation of an Arab bank to finance reconstruction in Arab countries devastated by conflicts such as Syria and Yemen.

President Michel Aoun made the calls at the opening of the fourth annual Arab Economic and Social Development Summit, which was marred by the glaring absence of most Arab heads of state.

"Lebanon calls on the international community to make all efforts possible and provide suitable conditions for a safe return of displaced Syrians ... without linking that to a political solution," Aoun said.

There are currently 5.6 million Syrian refugees living in the region, including around one million born into displacement, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

Lebanon hosts some 1.5 million Syrians who have fled the civil war raging across the border.

Most live in extreme poverty and have placed an extra burden on Lebanon's fragile economy.

Despite some returns to slivers of Syria, the United Nations says the country as a whole remains still unsafe for civilians to return to.

The refugee issue was to be one of the main points on the agenda of this year's summit, and Aoun said he had put forward measures that would ease their return.

The "establishment of an Arab bank for reconstruction and development" of Arab countries devastated by conflict, would be one of them, he said.

'Summit without leaders'

Aoun also expressed his "regret" that most Arab heads of state had failed to attend the summit hosted by Lebanon and co-organised with the Arab League, saying they had "no excuse for their absence".

Only Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz were present on Sunday for the opening of the meeting, focused on economic development in the region

Aoun said he had hoped the summit would be a chance "to bring together all the Arabs and that there would be no empty seats ... but the obstacles were unfortunately stronger".

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He was apparently referring to divisions in the run-up to the summit over whether Syria would be allowed to attend the annual meeting, the AFP news agency reported.

The Arab League suspended Syria's membership in November 2011 as the death toll mounted in its civil war, but several Arab states are seeking to restore ties with Syria President Bashar al-Assad after his forces made decisive gains in the conflict.

But nearly eight years into the war, which has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions, efforts to bring the government of Assad back into the Arab fold appear underway.

With backing from Russia and Iran, Assad's government has expelled various armed groups from large parts of Syria, and now controls almost two-thirds of the country.

On Friday, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil urged the Cairo-based Arab League to readmit Syria.

Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit on Thursday said Syria's return to the body was awaiting "Arab consensus".

In December, Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir made the first visit by any Arab leader to the Syrian capital since 2011, and the United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus after closing it in 2012.