Thousands poised to leave Lebanon-Syria border zone under deal

(Google maps)
Updated 01 August 2017

Thousands poised to leave Lebanon-Syria border zone under deal

BEIRUT: Convoys of buses arrived on Monday to transfer thousands of Syrian militants and refugees from Lebanon’s border region into Syria in exchange for Hezbollah prisoners.

Under a local cease-fire between the militants and Hezbollah, about 9,000 fighters and their relatives were to leave on Monday, a Hezbollah media unit said earlier.

The deal includes the departure of all Al-Nusra Front militants from Lebanon’s border region around the town of Arsal, along with any civilians in nearby refugee camps who wish to go.

The truce echoes deals struck within Syria in which Damascus has shuttled fighters and civilians to Idlib province and other opposition areas. Such evacuations have helped President Bashar Assad recapture several opposition bastions over the past year.

Lebanon’s Hezbollah has played a major role in fighting militants along the frontier during Syria’s six-year war, sending thousands of combatants to support Assad’s government.

Last week, Hezbollah took most of the mountainous zone of Jaroud Arsal in a joint offensive with the Syrian army to drive Al-Nusra members from their last frontier foothold.

The Al-Nusra Front was Al-Qaeda’s Syria branch until it severed ties and rebranded last year. It now spearheads the Tahrir Al-Sham alliance in the Syrian war.

The Lebanese army, which receives considerable US and British military support, did not take an active part in the operation, setting up defensive positions around Arsal.

The next phase is expected to target a nearby enclave currently in the hands of Daesh terrorists.

“Buses that will transport Al-Nusra Front militants and their families have started arriving in Jaroud Arsal,” the military media unit run by the Iran-backed Hezbollah said via social media on Monday.

The convoys rolled in from Syria and headed toward Lebanese army positions. Syrian Red Crescent ambulances arrived on the opposite side of the frontier, the media unit said.

Footage from the border zone showed dozens of white buses driving through the barren hills. The Lebanese Red Cross has taken part in logistics.

The first step of the cease-fire, brokered by Lebanon’s internal security agency, unfolded on Sunday as the two sides exchanged the bodies of dead fighters.

A Lebanese security source said 200 militants with hundreds of their family members, as well as more than 5,000 refugees, were due to leave, mostly toward insurgent-held Idlib.

Al-Nusra Front will release eight Hezbollah fighters under the deal, three captured in recent days and five held in Syria, a Lebanese security source said.

Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV said the two sides would swap Al-Nusra militants for the Hezbollah hostages near the city of Aleppo, which the Syrian government controls.

The UN refugee agency (UNHRC), not involved in the deal, was trying to reach refugees in the Arsal region to evaluate whether returns were voluntary, spokeswoman Lisa Abou Khaled said.

“UNHCR believes that conditions for refugees to return in safety and dignity are not yet in place in Syria,” she said, with war continuing across large swathes of the country.

The multi-sided Syrian conflict has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven at least 11 million from their homes — about half Syria’s pre-war population.

Nearly 1.5 million refugees have poured into Lebanon — around a quarter of its population — where most languish in severe poverty. Several thousand live in makeshift camps east of Arsal.


French FM holds Iraq talks on Daesh prisoners in Syria

Updated 41 min 51 sec ago

French FM holds Iraq talks on Daesh prisoners in Syria

  • One of the issues is Iraq’s use of death penalty, which is outlawed throughout EU
  • Several EU countries sent technical missions to Baghdad to assess the situation

BAGHDAD: France’s top diplomat held talks in Baghdad on Thursday about transferring foreign militants from northern Syria, where a Turkish offensive has triggered fears of mass jailbreaks, to be tried in Iraq.
European governments are worried that the Turkish operation will allow the escape of some of the 12,000 suspected Daesh group fighters — including thousands of foreigners — held by Syrian Kurds.
The issue was top of the agenda for French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in his talks with his Iraqi counterpart Mohammed Ali Al-Hakim, President Barham Saleh and Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi.
“We need to work things out with the Iraqi authorities so that we can find a way to have a judicial mechanism that is able to judge all these fighters, including obviously the French fighters,” Le Drian told French TV channel BFM on Wednesday.
The aim is for foreign militants to be tried in Iraqi courts while upholding certain principles of justice and respect for human rights, a French diplomatic source said.
One issue will be Iraq’s use of the death penalty, which is outlawed throughout the EU.
Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden sent officials on a technical mission to Baghdad this week to assess the situation.
“There are talks between the Americans, the British, French and Iraqis about funding the construction of prisons,” Hisham Al-Hashemi, an Iraqi expert on Daesh, told AFP.
Hundreds of foreigners have been sentenced to death or life imprisonment in Iraq for belonging to Daesh.
Eleven French militants handed over to Iraqi authorities early this year by US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria were sentenced to death by a court in Baghdad.
In April, Iraq offered to try foreign Daesh suspects in exchange for operational costs.
One Iraqi official said Baghdad had requested $2 billion to put the suspects on trial.
Turkey on Monday accused Kurdish forces of deliberately releasing Daesh prisoners held at a prison in the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad “in an attempt to fuel chaos in the area.”
Kurdish officials claimed that Turkish bombardments had allowed nearly 800 relatives of foreign Daesh fighters to escape from a camp for the displaced.
According to the Kurdish administration, there are around 12,000 suspected Daesh fighters in the custody of Kurdish security forces across northeastern Syria.
At least 2,500 of them are non-Iraqi foreigners of more than 50 different nationalities. Tunisia is thought to have the biggest contingent.
Officials in Paris say 60 to 70 French nationals are among those held.
The rest are around 4,000 Syrians and roughly the same number of Iraqis.
The fighters, who were detained mostly in the course of operations led by Kurdish forces and backed by the US-led coalition against Daesh, are detained in at least seven facilities.
Western governments such as France have been reluctant to take them back, for lack of a clear legal framework and fears of a public backlash.
Le Drian said Wednesday that the security of Kurdish-run prisons holding suspected militants in northern Syria was “currently” not threatened by the Turkish military operation.