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Cyprus minister says a proposal to set up safe zones in Syria for refugees to return is advancing

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — A Cyprus government proposal to enable repatriations of Syrian refugees by designating specific areas within the country as safe zones is “gaining ground” among the island nation's fellow European Union member states, the Cypriot interior minister said Friday.

Minister Constantinos Ioannou said after talks with European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas that it’s the “conviction of several states that the time has come to collectively dare” to discuss the possibility of designating safe zones 13 years after the start of the Syrian conflict.

Ioannou said that in light of the danger that the Israeli-Hamas war in Gaza may engulf Lebanon and other Middle Eastern states, it’s incumbent on the EU to reach a collective decision on Syria.

The minister said Cyprus police has set up a dedicated unit charged with breaking up people smuggling rings that he said are responsible for a recent upswing of Syrian refugee arrivals by boat.

The Cypriot government is urging both Europol and the EU’s border protection agency FRONTEX to bolster patrols along the bloc’s southeastern maritime borders to head off migrant arrivals.

“The repatriation of Syrian nationals under strict conditions would decongest our migrant reception facilities and contribute to the successful integration of migrants,” Ioannou said.

Last week, some 450 Syrian migrants aboard six boats were spotted off the southeastern coast of Cyprus within a 24-hour span. All six boats had departed from Lebanon.

Official figures show that although overall migrant arrivals to Cyprus are significantly down, the influx of Syrian refugees has risen sharply.

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