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Displaced Syrians heading home in larger numbers: IOM

IOM says over 600,000 Syrians set off for their cities and villages in first seven months of 2017 amid new displacement.

al-Ruhaiba

Syrians who have been displaced by the ongoing civil war in their country are heading home in larger numbers, according to a migration agency.

The Switzerland-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Friday that nearly 603,000 Syrian refugees have set off to return to their cities and villages in the first seven months of this year.

The Syrians included in the figures were returning from other locations in Syria or from Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan or Iraq.

The number nearly matched the 685,662 people who returned during all of 2016, Olivia Headon, IOM spokesperson, said.

The returning Syrians were motivated by the desire to protect their homes and possessions, an improved economic and security situation in Syria, and problems with integration in their host countries, according to the IOM.

Newly displaced

About 67 percent of the returns this year have been to Aleppo province - where the opposition-held eastern part of the city was retaken by President Bashar al-Assad's government in December - IOM said.

But an estimated 808,661 people have been newly displaced this year, "many for the second or third time", she said.

Syrians who remain internally displaced number at about 800,000, many of whom have fled violence and strife for the second or third time, according to the IOM.

Syrian government troops recently removed ISIL fighters from their last stronghold in the central province of Homs, recapturing the strategically important town of al-Sukhna after the group took hold of it in May 2015.

ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group, has suffered military setbacks in recent months, losing ground in Syria and neighbouring Iraq.

Syria's civil war, now in its seventh year, has devastated the country, claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced about half of the pre-war population of 22 million.

Turkish precautions

For its part, Turkey says new precautions are being taken along its border in response to recent developments in northwestern Syria.

Speaking after Friday prayers in Ankara, Binali Yildirim, the prime minister, said "radical groups have taken over control" in Syria's Idlib province.

Last month, al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham - Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee, also known as HTS - captured the majority of Idlib after battles with the the Ahrar al-Sham group.

HTS also seized the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey's Hatay province.

"We are taking the necessary precautions in Hatay's 150km border with Syria," Yildirim said, in order to prevent "humanitarian dramas" and threats against Turkey.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday said talks on the situation in Idlib are ongoing between the country's intelligence service, Iran and Russia.

Lebanon fighting

In another Syria-related development, the head of Lebanon's General Security says fighters from Saraya Ahl al-Sham, an armed group, will start on Saturday to pull out of an enclave in Lebanon on the border with Syria along with some civilians.

About 300 fighters, along with their families and some other civilians who wish to return to Syria, will be escorted to the border by security forces, General Abbas Ibrahim told Reuters news agency by phone on Friday.

Ibrahim said those civilians who had asked to leave along with Saraya Ahl al-Sham would go to the government-held Assal al-Ward district near the border.

The fighters would go to a place that had been agreed upon, he said.

Ibrahim did not name the place. However, a military media unit run by Lebanon's Shia armed group Hezbollah - which is closely allied to Assad - reported that the fighters and their families would go to the opposition-held town of al-Ruhaiba in the Eastern Qalamoun district.

Elsewhere in Syria, US-backed Syrian fighters advancing from the eastern and western parts of the northern city of Raqqa on Friday linked up for the first time in weeks after launching their offensive against ISIL fighters there.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces launched a wide offensive to capture Raqqa - ISIL's de facto - on June 6.

Since then, SDF fighters have captured half the city under the cover of Russian air strikes.

US Army Colonel Ryan Dillon said via Twitter that SDF forces have linked up "East-West axes" in Raqqa and are continuing to pressure ISIL, also known as ISIS.

Mustafa Bali, who heads the SDF media centre, confirmed on Friday that SDF fighters pushing from opposite sides of the city have met.

Eastern Ghouta assault

Earlier, video released by Syrian opposition media appeared to show the aftermath of an artillery strike in the town of Kafr Batna in the opposition-controlled Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus.

Syrian activists say that pro-government forces have intensified their bombardment of Eastern Ghouta in recent days with repeated strikes hitting the area.

The blast appeared to cause several casualties, according to the video released by the Ghouta Media Center on Wednesday.

Another strike could be heard nearby while rescuers attempted to move the injured to safety.

On Thursday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) monitoring group said pro-government forces fired dozens of rockets on Eastern Ghouta.

The SOHR said three civilians were killed in Thursday's shelling.

Parts of the Damascus suburbs are protected by a ceasefire agreement. The government says it is striking at opposition fighters.

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