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Lebanon began transporting an estimated 400 Islamic State fighters and family members from its northern border to the militants’ stronghold in eastern Syria on Monday, according to official sources in Lebanon and Syria, reported The New York Times.
The militants were transferred as part of a deal between the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and its Syrian and Lebanese enemies. Under the agreement, the bodies of eight people believed to be Lebanese soldiers were to be returned, while Islamic State militants were to receive 17 air-conditioned buses, 11 ambulances and a free pass through territory held by the Syrian government.
Hezbollah, the Shiite-dominated group whose militia was among the parties to the deal, announced through its War Media Center that the transfer of the Islamic State fighters had begun Monday morning. First to go were 25 wounded fighters in ambulances, followed by busloads of fighters and others.
The Syrian state news agency, SANA, also confirmed that the transfer of fighters was underway.
Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, the Lebanese intelligence chief who was the government’s chief negotiator in trying to win the return of Lebanon’s captured soldiers, defended the arrangement.
“The return of Daesh militants in air-conditioned cars to their countries is permissible because Lebanon adheres to the philosophy of a state that does not exact revenge,” he said in a radio interview, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, according to the Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star.
Former President Michel Sleiman was among the Lebanese leaders who declared the deal a win for the government. “Military victory must be supplemented by chasing down those who executed the soldiers and prosecuting them before international and Arabic tribunals,” Mr. Sleiman said on Twitter.
Nine Lebanese soldiers were taken prisoner during fighting in the Arsal area of northeast Lebanon in 2014. Since then, there had been little information on their fate, even though relatives have staged numerous protests in Beirut, the capital.
Just over a week ago, the Lebanese Army launched an offensive in the border area to pressure Islamic State militants into negotiating the soldiers’ release. Simultaneously, Hezbollah and their allies in the Syrian government began an offensive in the same area, from the Syrian side of the border. That the operations coincided was unplanned, they said.
Both sides declared a cease-fire with the Islamic State on Sunday to allow for the recovery of the service members.
General Ibrahim said that it appeared that the eight bodies handed over were those of the missing soldiers, although DNA identification is pending. No information about the ninth missing soldier was provided, but there have been reports that one may have joined the Islamic State militants during his captivity.
SANA reported: “Following the victories made by Syrian armed forces in cooperation with the Lebanese national resistance Hezbollah in the western Qalamoun area, and to prevent shedding of blood of the armed forces supporting forces and civilians, a deal reached between Hezbollah and ISIS terrorist organization on the withdrawal of the remaining ISIS terrorists from western Qalamoun toward the eastern region of Syria was agreed on.”
Qalamoun is the name of the mountain range on the Syrian side of the border, opposite the Arsal area of Lebanon.
There was no immediate statement from the Islamic State group on the deal.
It is the first time the group is known to have negotiated a settlement to stop fighting involving a large number of militants and to give up territory.
The agreement calls for Islamic State fighters and their families to be escorted to Boukamal, an area in Deir al-Zour Province, large parts of which are dominated by the militants.
The Lebanese government referred to the deal as a “surrender” by the extremist group that would remove the last of Islamic State groups from its border region with Syria. However, the militants were simply being relocated from the northern Lebanese border, where they were surrounded by hostile, pro-Syrian government forces, to an area in eastern Syria where they are largely engaged in fighting other Syrian opposition groups or the Western-backed Syrian Democratic Front.
None of those involved divulged whether the Islamic State fighters had been permitted to keep their weapons, although the official Syrian news media said the militants had destroyed their fortifications and equipment before the transfers took place. There was no suggestion that they would be prevented from returning to combat.
Read more at nytimes.com
show source https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/28/world/middleeast/lebanon-isis-syria.html