BEIRUT: Thousands of Syrians including hundreds of Al Qaida militants and their families were being transferred Wednesday from Arsal outskirts near the northeastern Lebanese border to Idlib province in Syria as part of a deal struck days earlier with Hezbollah, Lebanese authorities and the Syrian government.
The evacuation process had been halted on Tuesday following further demands from the Al-Qaida affiliated Fatah al-Sham Front, previously known as the Nusra Front, in regards to a prisoner swap between the militant group and Hezbollah.
The negotiations, however, made headway on Wednesday as Lebanese authorities released three Fatah al-Sham militants from Roumieh prison in exchange for three Hezbollah fighters captured during the latest battle in Arsal outskirts.
The deal followed a military offensive by Hezbollah fighters and Syrian troops during which they captured an area straddling the Syrian-Lebanese border. The offensive left hundreds of Al-Qaida affiliated fighters besieged in a small rugged mountainous area.
According to Hezbollah’s media wing, Syrians were being transported from two areas, one of which falls under the Lebanese army’s control. The first area is home to 116 gunmen and 6101 refugees, while the other holds 1000 gunmen and 560 refugees.
This brings the total number of those electing to leave to 7777, with an estimated 50000 refugees opting to remain in Arsal’s different refugee camps which remain under the tight grip of the Lebanese Army.
Last week, Hezbollah engaged the militants entrenched within the outskirts of Arsal in an effort to cleanse the area. Following days of fierce fighting during which Fatah Al-Sham suffered severe losses; a ceasefire was finally brokered between the two groups after the intervention of head of General Security Major General Abbas Ibrahim.
The deal also stipulates the return of another five captured Hezbollah fighters conducive to the militants and their families’ safe passage to Idlib.
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