World

Calls for probe after Syrians die in Lebanese custody

A Syrian opposition group and an international watchdog on Wednesday called for an investigation into the deaths of at least four Syrians in Lebanese army custody.

The men were detained in a sweeping security raid last week that netted 355 Syrians in refugee settlements in and around the border town of Arsal, the scene of a major cross-border attack in 2014, when a number of Lebanese soldiers were abducted.

The army on Tuesday said four had died in custody from chronic health conditions exacerbated by the soaring summer heat.

On Wednesday, it said 85 had been charged with illegal entry into Lebanon, while 15 others have been released. At least four Syrians had detonated explosives vests during the raid, killing a Syrian girl and wounding seven Lebanese soldiers.

In Arsal, refugees blocked a road to prevent an ambulance from delivering four bodies for burial, demanding that autopsies take place first.

But the town mayor ordered they be taken to the local cemetery, a refugee from the Syrian town of Qusayr told The Associated Press. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of his uncertain legal status in Lebanon.

Mayor Bassil Hujeiri said the ambulance was sent by the town at the request of the military police to pick up four bodies from the Dar al-Amal Hospital in nearby Baalbek.

He denied interfering with the movement of the ambulances, insisting the army controls traffic in and out of Arsal.

According to photos that were seen by the AP, two of the bodies showed heavy bruising on the face and abdomen — which human rights lawyer Nabil Halabi said was consistent with beatings. A third body was missing the head, another photo showed.

The circumstances in which the photos were taken were not known. The refugee in Arsal identified three of the bodies as belonging to men detained in the raid.

A Lebanese army official added further confusion to the situation by saying later Wednesday the bodies of the four who had died in custody have not yet been returned to their families but were held for autopsies.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, denied they died under torture.

A Syrian opposition, the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition alleged that the army is trying covering up the number of fatalities and said at least 10 detainees had died in custody.

It did not offer evidence to back up its claim and called for an independent investigation.

Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said that "in light of the army's own admission that the health condition of the detainees deteriorated while in custody, a formal, transparent and independent investigation must be launched."

"In case of wrongdoing, those responsible for the deaths should be held accountable," she added.

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a similarly worded statement on Wednesday evening.