Nearly 8,000 Al Nusra militants, refugees leave Lebanon to Syria

Another five Hizbollah members will be released once the convoy of militants and refugees reaches Syria's Idlib

A bus driver takes a rest in Jroud Arsal, Syria-Lebanon border, August 1, 2017. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho
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Buses carrying nearly 8,000 of Syrian Jabhat Al Nusra fighters and refugees headed to the Syrian rebel-held province of Idlib on Wednesday morning after Lebanon’s Hizbollah group and the militants exchanged prisoners.

Their departure and the prisoner swap was part of a ceasefire agreement — brokered by the Lebanese authorities — after a six-day battle between the two groups ended last week.

Al Nusra militants burnt down the quarters they occupied in Jurud Arsal before departing, reported the National News Agency, adding there were two convoys, one of which was under the Lebanese army's control.

"The first was carrying 116 armed men and 6,101 refugees, and the other was carrying 1,000 gunmen and 560 refugees," it said, as 150 buses were set to transport the militants, their families and refugees.

Three Hizbollah fighters were released by Al Nusra at approximately 1am Beirut time in exchange for three people held by Lebanon.

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Another five Hizbollah members — who were captured in Aleppo in 2015 — will be released once the buses arrive in Idlib. Following their release, a second convoy of approximately 3,000 militants and refugees will head from Lebanon to Syria.

“Three members of Hizbollah — Mahmoud Harb, Hussam Fakih and Hafez Zakhim — were released in exchange for two inmates in Roumieh Prison and a third that was in the custody of Lebanon’s General Security and had finished his sentence,” said the report.

The three men were transported in Red Cross vehicles from Jurud Arsal to a Lebanese army base, where head of Lebanon’s General Security Maj Gen Ibrahim Abbas led swap operations.


Syria's war:


Hizbollah — which fights alongside president Bashar Al Assad’s forces in Syria — launched its offensive on the mountainous border area of Jurud Arsal, which was used by Al Nusra militants as a hideout for several years, on July 21.

The Lebanese army did not take part in the offensive but set up defensive positions around the town of Arsal to protect civilians.

ISIL and Al Nusra — who are at war in Syria — have been responsible for a number of deadly bombings in Lebanon since 2013.

Nearly 1.5 million Syrian refugees are in Lebanon, around a quarter of its population, where most live in severe poverty. Tens of thousands of refugees, most of whom live in makeshift camps, live in Arsal.