Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, second left, speaks with European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, second right, during a meeting on the sidelines of a conference on 'Supporting the future of Syria and the region' at the EU Council building in Brussels, Wednesday, April 25, 2018. (Stephanie Lecocq, Pool Photo via AP)

The Latest: Lebanese minister hopes Syrians will head home

April 26, 2018 - 10:10 am

BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest on Syria developments (all times local):

5:10 p.m.

Lebanon's foreign minister has criticized the U.N. refugee agency, saying it's warning Syrian refugees in Lebanon not to return to their war-torn country.

Gibran Bassil told reporters after a Cabinet meeting on Thursday that large parts of Syria are now safe, which makes it easier for many Syrian refugees in Lebanon to return home.

Lebanon is home to some 1.2 million refugees, accounting for nearly a quarter of its population.

Bassil said that the "international community should stop encouraging Syrians to stay in Lebanon and not return to Syria."

His comments came a day after international donors pledged an estimated $4.4 billion in humanitarian aid for Syria and neighbors sheltering its refugees in 2018, falling significantly short of the more than $7 billion the United Nations is seeking.

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3:10 p.m.

Britain and France are denouncing as a stunt and an "obscene masquerade" a move by Russia to produce Syrian witnesses who Russia says were filmed in "staged videos" in the aftermath of a reported chemical weapons attack.

Thursday's briefing at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is seen as an effort by Russia to discredit widespread reports of an April 7 chemical weapon attack in the town of Douma that killed more than 40 people and was blamed by the West on President Bashar Assad's government. Syria and Russia deny the claims.

French Ambassador Philippe Lalliot says: "This obscene masquerade does not come as a surprise from the Syrian government, which has massacred and gassed its own people for the last seven years."

Britain's ambassador, Peter Wilson, says he and other Western allies will not attend the briefing.

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11:50 a.m.

Syrian state media is reporting that government forces have pushed into a Damascus neighborhood held by the Islamic State group from different directions and captured buildings on several street blocks and tunnels used by the extremists.

State news agency SANA said Thursday that dozens of IS fighters were killed in battles in the southern Damascus neighborhood of Hajar al-Aswad during which ground forces closely coordinated with the air force in bombarding the area.

The opposition's Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian authorities ordered rebel groups in the southern Damascus suburbs of Babila, Beit Sahm and Yalda to hand over fronts lines with IS in the area or face government bombardment.

The Observatory said the government wants to open new fronts against IS to expand pressure on the extremists.

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