Ras al-Harf, Liban — Lebanese authorities on Tuesday sent a rare aid convoy to the town of Tufeil, an island of Lebanese territory inside Syria where thousands have become trapped in the country’s war.
Tufeil is located on the northeastern tip of Lebanon, which stretches into Syria.
Though the town is Lebanese, it is impossible to reach it without passing through Syrian territory.
The town was once home to some 5,000 people, most of them Sunni Muslims, but many have fled to safety inside Lebanon as the conflict in Syria has escalated.
Ever since Lebanon gained independence from France in 1943, residents of Tufeil have voted in Lebanon, but have gone to school, worked, received medical treatment and bought their goods from Syria.
But as the Syrian army, backed by Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement, scored a string of victories this year in the surrounding Qalamun area, Tufeil’s Sunni residents found themselves trapped.
For weeks the town’s population has been unable to leave or receive any kind of assistance, with Syrian armed forces blocking the routes into Syria.
Inside Lebanon, the villages neighboring Tufeil are largely Shiite, where support for Hezbollah and the Syrian regime is strong, and residents accuse Tufeil of supporting Syria’s Sunni-led opposition.
With concern rising about the plight of the town, Lebanon’s Interior Minister Nuhad Mashnuq said Monday that authorities would provide assistance to Tufeil’s residents, as well as to Syrians who have taken refuge there.
Mashnuq also said he had been in touch with Hezbollah in a bid to secure safe passage for the aid convoy through the Shiite village of Britel, which neighbors Tufeil in Lebanon.
An AFP journalist, who traveled with the convoy until Ras al-Harf, six kilometers (four miles) from Tufeil, said the terrain was rugged and that Hezbollah positions and flags were clearly visible.
The aid convoy comprised Red Cross vehicles, trucks transporting 1,000 food parcels, tents, 3,000 blankets, a mobile clinic, and fuel tanks, said Lebanon’s High Relief Commission chief Mohammad Kheir.
According to Kheir, “1,000 Lebanese and 3,000 Syrians” are now trapped in Tufeil.
Ali al-Shum, an official from Tufeil, told AFP: “Before the (Syrian) crisis, we didn’t used to distinguish between Lebanese and Syrians. We lived together.”
He denied any Syrian opposition fighters had entered Tufeil.
Once the convoy arrived, television footage from the town showed hundreds gathered to receive aid, cheering and throwing flowers at the delegation.
“We need help, but we do not want to leave our land,” said one beneficiary.
Another asked for the Lebanese army to deploy in Tufeil “to protect us.”