Refugees, militants reach Syria after truce with Hezbollah

AFP , Thursday 3 Aug 2017

This photograph taken on August 2, 2017, shows a convoy carrying Syrian fighters and their families, who have been in eastern Lebanon since the beginning of the Syria war, entering the mountainous area around the Syrian border town of Flita, on their way to be relocated to the northwestern province of Idlib, as part of the second phase of a ceasefire deal (Photo: AFP)

Thousands of Syrian refugees and militants evacuated from northeastern Lebanon arrived on Thursday in central Syria in territory held by rebel and Islamist militants, a monitoring said.

They were bussed out of the restive border area between Lebanon and Syria as part of a ceasefire deal between Lebanon's Shiite movement Hezbollah and fighters from Al-Qaeda's former Syrian branch.

In exchange, the Islamist militant group released two Hezbollah fighters, an AFP correspondent said, adding that they arrived in Red Crescent vehicles in the area of Al-Saan in central Hama province.

A total of 7,777 people -- a vast majority of them civilians but also including militants -- were transported back into Syria from Lebanon's mountainous Jurud Arsal region on Wednesday in line with the ceasefire.

The agreement ended six days of fighting in Jurud Arsal between Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda's former Syrian affiliate, previously known as the Al-Nusra Front.

On Thursday, buses carrying three groups of Syrian Islamist militants and refugees arrived in an area of Hama under the control of rebels and Islamist militants, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Two more groups are still due to arrive and three more Hezbollah fighters are to be released by the end of the operation.

Jurud Arsal had been used for years as a hideout by Syrian militants, but was also home to an unknown number of refugees seeking shelter from Syria's six-year war.

Al-Nusra Front was Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria until mid-2016 when it broke off ties, before going on to found a new alliance led by Islamist militants called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which now controls large swathes of Syria's northwestern Idlib province.

Hezbollah launched the offensive on the Syrian militants on July 21 and had cornered rival fighters in a small pocket of territory when it announced the truce.

The deal also calls for the release of three detainees held in Lebanon's Roumieh prison.

The first phase of the deal took place on Monday, when Hezbollah and HTS exchanged the bodies of nine Syrian fighters for the remains of five Hezbollah fighters.

Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees live in the town of Arsal, adjacent to the border region, and an unknown number are also thought to have taken shelter in the surrounding mountains.

More than one million Syrians are registered with the United Nations as refugees in Lebanon, a country of just four million people.

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