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Published: Wednesday December 11, 2013 MYT 1:20:02 AM
Updated: Wednesday December 11, 2013 MYT 1:20:54 AM

Most Syrian and Palestinian refugees held in Egypt released

CAIRO (Reuters) - More than 170 Syrian and Palestinian refugees held since October in Egyptian police stations were released on Tuesday and granted temporary permits to stay in Egypt, a government spokesman said.

Egypt tightened its open-door visa policy for Syrians fleeing civil war soon after the army toppled Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in July. Arrests and deportations of refugees, some of whom had not formalised their stays, followed.

The refugees released on Tuesday had been trying to leave Egypt illegally by boat when authorities detained them.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatty said 171 of 206 Syrian and Palestinian "illegal immigrants" had been granted three-month visas, while the cases of the remaining 35 still in detention were under review.

Authorities have apprehended about 1,500 Syrian refugees in the last few months and about 1,200 of them have been "coerced to leave", according to Human Rights Watch.

Although courts had ordered the release of all 206 Syrians and Palestinians in detention, the authorities had previously said they were still being held for immigration violations.

In one police station, dozens of refugees staged a hunger strike last month to draw attention to their plight, but called it off after 10 days.

About 300,000 of the 2.3 million refugees fleeing Syria went to Egypt, where they were received warmly during Mursi's year in office. His removal changed the atmosphere, with Egyptian media accusing Syrians and Palestinians of being Mursi supporters.

The United Nations refugee agency says Egypt has refused to let it register Palestinians from Syria as refugees and give them the yellow card that allows them temporary residence.

Tamara El Rifai of Human Rights Watch said the U.S.-based group welcomed Tuesday's release, but called for the government to allow UNHCR to register the Syrians of Palestinian origin.

"We are looking for a concerted solution between the authorities, the U.N., and other countries willing to step up," she said.

(Reporting by Maggie Fick; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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