BEIRUT: Around 3,000 Syrians, including hundreds of militants from Saraya Ahl al-Sham, a Free Syrian Army-affiliated group, will be leaving the outskirts of the Lebanese northeastern border town of Arsal as the army concludes preparations for an offensive against Islamic State militants in a nearby area.
The army captured a number of strategic hilltops between the frontier towns of Ras Baalbek and Arsal from IS on Sunday, destroying the group’s fortifications and killing several of its fighters.
The army is expected to launch an offensive to decisively defeat the group if negotiations over the withdrawal of IS militants to territories under their control in Syria fails, a security source told Annahar.
The success of the negotiations hinges on whether IS militants reveal the fate of nine Lebanese soldiers who were abducted in 2014 when IS and al-Qaida-linked militants briefly occupied Arsal.
“We will not negotiate unless IS discloses the fate of those captured soldiers,” Head of General Security, Major General Abbas Ibrahim said on Thursday after the safe arrival of five Hezbollah fighters released by Fatah al-Sham front, an Al-Qaida affiliated group previously known as the Nusra Front.
The Hezbollah fighters were returned to their families as part of a deal struck between Lebanese authorities, Hezbollah, Fatah al-Sham Front and the Syrian government after a week-long battle to drive Al-Qaida affiliated militants from Arsal’s outskirts.
Fatah al-Sham Front agreed to vacate the frontier region in July, following a two-weeks-long military operation spearheaded by Hezbollah on the Lebanese side and the Syrian army on the other. More than 1,000 militants were given safe passage to Fatah al-Sham's stronghold in northwest Syria's Idlib province. Some 6,000 Syrian refugees accompanied them, preferring not to stay in Lebanon.
The militants have been a thorn in the country's side since they began filtering in from neighboring Syria, which has been in the throes of civil war since 2011.
Lebanese authorities and Hezbollah have blamed a string of terror blasts in the country dating back to 2013 on extremist groups entrenched within the region straddling the northeastern Lebanese-Syrian border.--with AP
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