After Deal, ISIS Allowed to Leave Syria-Lebanon Border Area

The Syrian army and the Lebanese Hezbollah group have been waging their own separate but simultaneous offensive to pressure ISIS on the Syrian side of the border

Islamic State militants and their families began leaving a border area between Lebanon and Syria on Monday as part of a negotiated deal to end the group's presence there, Lebanese and Syrian media reported.

An unidentified number of militants and their families headed in buses toward a town held by the extremist group in far eastern Syria, near the border with Iraq.

The transfer comes nearly a week after Lebanon launched a military campaign to drive ISIS from the rugged mountainous area along its border with Syria.

The Syrian army and the Lebanese Hezbollah group have been waging their own separate but simultaneous offensive to pressure ISIS on the Syrian side of the border. Hezbollah has been fighting alongside President Bashar Assad's forces in Syria since 2013.

Nearly two dozen buses and 11 ambulances carried the militants and their families from the area straddling the Syria-Lebanon border toward the IS-held town of Boukamal in eastern Syria.

Syrian Al-Ikhbariya TV reported that there were about 250 militants in the transfer. The Central Military Center, a media outlet run by Hezbollah, said ambulances ferried 25 IS wounded fighters from the area.

The Lebanese military on Monday took journalists on a tour of areas along the border near Ras Baalbek that were recaptured from ISIS in the past week. Soldiers, tanks and armored vehicles were heavily deployed along the border area, and caves used by ISIS bore signs of damage from the recent fighting. About 5,000 Lebanese soldiers took part in the offensive.

A senior Lebanese military official said a number of militants were also leaving from the Lebanese side of the border, to be transferred with the Syrian convoy. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not part of the negotiations, did not have a number for militants leaving Lebanon.

The transfer of the militants is part of a deal that came into effect following negotiations, led by Hezbollah, to determine the fate of nine Lebanese soldiers who were kidnapped in 2014.

On Sunday, the Lebanese army, on one side, and Hezbollah and the Syrian army on another, declared separate but simultaneous cease-fires. Shortly afterward, the remains of eight soldiers were located and exhumed in an area near the border with Syria. The fate of one soldier remains unclear. The bodies of five Hezbollah fighters killed in fighting the militants were also handed over, allowing for the transfer of militants.

Al-Ikhbariya said the Syrian government approved the transfer of militants to Boukamal to facilitate the talks over the fate of the soldiers.

The military official said once the transfer is completed, the Lebanese army would take control of the evacuated areas. Before the deal, the Lebanese military successfully pushed out ISIS militants from about 100 square kilometers (38 square miles) while Hezbollah fighters drove ISIS from another 20 square kilometers (8 square miles).

The Lebanese military said last week 20 square kilometers (8 square miles) remained in the hands of the militants. On the Syrian side of the border, the militants had before the offensive controlled 155 square kilometers (60 square miles).

The U.S-.backed Lebanese army denies coordinating its operation with the Syrian army.

Once the last of the militants depart, the border area will be free of insurgents for the first time since the early days of the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011. The clearing of the area also secures the strategic highway between Damascus and Homs, Syria's third largest city.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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