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BREAKING NEWS

Syria urges people at camp in U.S.-protected area to return home

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Syrian government on Thursday urged people sheltering at a camp located in a U.S.-protected area on the Jordanian border to return home and said it would help them to do so.

Some 40,000 people are living in dire conditions at the Rukban camp, located in a U.S.-protected area of Syria near a Pentagon-run base at Tanf that is a focal point of tension with the Damascus government and its Russian allies.

Many of the people at Rukban had fled areas seized by Islamic State militants who have now lost nearly all the territory they once held.

The United Nations this month described the conditions at Rukban as increasingly desperate.

"The Syrian state will offer all facilities to move those citizens from the camp to their places of residence," state news agency SANA quoted a Syrian foreign ministry source as saying.

Rukban lies inside a "deconfliction zone" set up by U.S. forces. Moscow and Damascus say U.S. troops are illegally occupying Syrian territory and providing a safe haven for rebels, and have been pushing for them to leave the area.

The U.S.-protected zone has encouraged many of Rukban's inhabitants to stay rather than go back to their homes in areas under government control, where many fear conscription into the Syrian military.

"HUMANITARIAN CATASTROPHE"

The Syrian government's position is that responsibility for the "humanitarian catastrophe" at Rukban lies with the "American occupation and its tools" who prevented people leaving, SANA cited the foreign ministry source as saying.

The United States has said it has not impeded and will not impede the movement of people who want to leave the camp.

It has also said it will not force anyone to leave, saying a process of "safe, voluntary and dignified departures" should be closely coordinated with the United Nations.

Washington has also called on Damascus to allow unhindered U.N. humanitarian access to Rukban, and it welcomed an aid delivery in early February.

Earlier this month, Russia said it was opening two corridors on the camp outskirts for those who wanted to leave.

President Donald Trump late last year ordered the withdrawal of all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, but said last week he would leave about 400 U.S. troops split between two different regions, including the area where Rukban is located.

The Tanf garrison was set up when Islamic State fighters controlled eastern Syria bordering Iraq. But since the militants were driven out, it has assumed a role as part of a U.S. strategy to contain Iran's military buildup.

(Reporting By Stephen Kalin; Editing by Tom Perry and Gareth Jones)

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