Syrian rebels have told Lebanese truck drivers that the Masnaa crossing to Syria would remain closed indefinitely, the head of Lebanon’s Farmers’ Association told The Daily Star Monday.
Antoine Howayek said the situation had deteriorated rapidly on the road, which is a vital land export route for Lebanese exports to Gulf Cooperation Council states. The road was closed last week after the highway connecting Damascus and Amman became the scene of intense clashes between the rebels and government troops. “No trucks have been able to pass through the Lebanese-Syrian crossing in Masnaa over the past few days, particularly after a major bridge on the road was blown up last week,” Howayek said.
“The [Free Syrian Army] made it clear to the drivers of dozens of trucks stranded in Syria that they should not cross again, and that the road would be closed for the time being,” he added.
Media reports said the highway was declared a military zone by some rebel brigades attempting to cut off supply routes to Syrian army regiments based near the borders with Jordan.
An industry source said Monday that some 85 stranded truck carrying agricultural and other goods finally returned to Lebanon over the weekend.
The source said that rebels had forced the drivers to return on the pretext their shipments had been bound for regime forces.
Howayek denied that any of the trucks had been destined for the regime or merchants in Syria, saying most were transit trucks headed for the GCC.
“The Syrian rebels did not single out Lebanese trucks, but are sealing off the roads for everyone for military reasons,” he added.
Agriculture Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan designated ministry staff to follow up on the case. He also asked the ministry’s General Director Louis Lahoud to make necessary contacts to facilitate the transit of the trucks to Arab states, the ministry said in a statement.
It added that the minister had been in contact with Iraqi officials to allow Lebanese trucks an alternative transit route to GCC countries.
But Howayek placed the blame on the Agriculture Ministry for failing to create alternative export routes for Lebanese trucks heading to the GCC.
He suggested that a route through Iraq would not be viable given the continuing deterioration in security conditions across Syria.
“The Agriculture Ministry and IDAL are responsible for the losses that ensued from closing land routes,” he said, adding that calls by the Farmers’ Association for a roll-on-roll-off ship route from Lebanon to Aqaba, Jordan, had fallen on deaf ears for a year.
“We knew we would arrive at this scenario, but the agriculture minister worked against the proposal with all his strength,” he said, adding that shipping refrigerated containers did not amount to an alternative route.
In an interview with The Daily Star last month, Hajj Hasan said the impact of the crisis in Syria on Lebanon’s agriculture sector had been minimal, and reported that only banana and citrus crops had seen losses.
A report on agricultural exports issued by the Farmers’ Association Monday said the improvement in Lebanon’s agricultural exports had been much less than that reported earlier by the state export promotion agency.
A statement accompanying the report said officials had overstated export figures.
According to the report, Lebanon exported 503,000 tons of produce in 2012 compared to 496,000 tons in 2011, growing by just 1.3 percent.
The Investment Development Authority of Lebanon said in February that agricultural exports had increased by 14 percent over the same period.
The decline in agricultural exports stands at 11.3 percent compared to 2010, when exports reached 567,000 tons, the report said.
Industrial exports performed much worse than agricultural exports.
The monthly export reports issued by the Industry Ministry said industrial exports stood at $2.952 billion at the end of 2012, declining by more than 11.5 percent compared to $3.208 billion in 2011.
“We call for the sacking of all officials who were involved in the mishandling of the situation which has led to the current crisis,” the statement by the Farmers’ Association said.
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