BEIRUT (AP) — Cease-fires took effect Sunday in the border area between Syria and Lebanon, halting separate but simultaneous weeklong offensives against the Islamic State group by the Lebanese army on one side and Hezbollah and Syrian troops on the other.
The two sides say they have driven the militants from most of the border region.
The U.S.-backed Lebanese military, which denies coordinating its offensive with the Syrian army, said the cease-fire is to allow negotiations over the fate of several Lebanese soldiers captured by militants three years ago.
Al-Ikhbariya, a Syrian TV station, said a Hezbollah delegation arrived in Syria to evacuate the bodies of Lebanese soldiers, but there was no official statement on the matter. Hezbollah’s TV said the group is also expected to evacuate bodies of five of its own fighters killed in the area.
Lebanon’s defense minister said in comments to reporters that Hezbollah was carrying out the negotiations over the soldiers, who were captured in 2014 when al-Qaida and Islamic State militants briefly overran a Lebanese town near the border.
The Syrian official news agency SANA said the area along the border would be declared free of IS militants soon.
Al-Ikhbariya quoted an unnamed Syrian field commander as saying the militants have been driven out of some 200 square kilometers (77 square miles) in Syria. Syrian media say around 400 militants and their families are expected to be evacuated toward Deir el-Zour, a city in eastern Syria that is mostly controlled by IS. A Syrian military official told SANA that evacuation of IS militants toward Deir el-Zour negotiated by Hezbollah has been approved.
The Central Military Media, an outlet run jointly by Hezbollah and the Syrian army, said the Sunday cease-fire, labeled the Qalamoun cease-fire deal, will pave the way for a comprehensive agreement to end the fighting in the area.
Hezbollah, which Western nations view as a terrorist organization, has been fighting alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces inside Syria since 2013.
Lebanon’s main political factions are bitterly divided over the war in neighboring Syria, and many would fiercely object to any direct cooperation with Assad’s government.
As negotiations for the evacuation of IS militants to Deir el-Zour were underway, Syrian troops backed by Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias have pushed their way into the province from Sukhna area, in the country’s center.
The government troops and its allied militias have been moving toward Deir el-Zour province from three different angles — in central, northern and southern Syria. The new advances bring the pro-government troops about 65 kilometers (40 kilometers) from the provincial capital, where IS militants have besieged government troops for years. IS controls most of the oil-rich province of Deir el-Zour, except for the government troops presence in the capital.
Russian officials have said the priority is now to aid government troops in recapturing Deir el-Zour. The province is southeast of Raqqa, where the U.S-backed Syrian opposition forces are battling the Islamic state militants.
U.S-backed forces, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, are also making a bid for Deir el-Zour province, raising concerns of a potential friction with the Syrian troops.
Late on Saturday, Islamic State militants attacked a base of the SDF forces in Shaddadi town, about 120 kilometers (74 miles) north of Deir el-Zour. Bassem Aziz, of the SDF media center in the area, said 12 IS militants attacked their offices, including four suicide bombers. Aziz said the attack continued into the early hours of Sunday, and was foiled, leaving the attackers killed and a number of SDF fighters injured
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