Published: Thu, August 03, 2017
World | By Paul Elliott

7777 people to leave Arsal according to Hezbollah-Nusra swap deal

7777 people to leave Arsal according to Hezbollah-Nusra swap deal

But tens of thousands of others still have no plans to leave, for fear of finding war, hardship, and oppressive militant rule waiting for them in Syria's northwestern province of Idlib, said Khaled Raad, a member of the Arsal Refugees' Coordination Committee of the Lebanese government.

Numerous refugees will be sent to Idlib where Fatah Al Sham continues to fight the Syrian government and has been the target of aerial bombing by Russian Federation and the United States. Such evacuations have helped President Bashar Assad recapture several rebel bastions over the past year, and are criticised by the opposition as amounting to the forced transfer of populations seen as sympathetic to the opposition.

Hizbollah's Al Manar television said that 113 buses had begun leaving Arsal town, headed for Fleita on the Syrian side.

In exchange, eight Hezbollah fighters held by al-Qaida's Syria affiliate, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, will be returned home.

It declared a ceasefire on Thursday, having taken over most of the area.

Arsal region witnessed one of the most serious spillovers of the Syrian civil war into Lebanon when JFS and Daesh militants briefly overran the town of Arsal in 2014, abducting dozens of Lebanese soldiers and policemen.

Abu Yahya Al Qalamouni who was in touch with several refugees said "many wanted to go to a camp where Hizbollah was not in control and not for love of Idlib".

The UN refugee body said in a statement that it was not a party to the agreement and stressed that "return of refugees should be made free from undue pressure".

The long line of buses drove through the partially paved mountain road between the two countries as Hezbollah fighters in beige uniforms and carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles watched them drive by. It was also agreed that upon arrival of the first convoy to Idlib, another five captive Hezbollah soldiers would be released, he said.

However, JFS announced Sunday that it had captured three Hezbollah fighters outside the Lebanese border town of Arsal. The agreement to send numerous civilians to the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, which is largely under the control of Fatah Al Sham and affiliated militants, has raised concerns that they are being sent back into harm's way. Hezbollah was supported by the Syrian air force, while the Lebanese Army took up defensive positions around Arsal to protect Lebanese civilians and Syrian refugees from the fighting.

Earlier this month, Hezbollah and the Syrian army launched a joint operation to expel JFS militants from a rugged mountainous section of the Lebanese-Syrian frontier. Local media reported that the deal hit snags because of new demands by the al-Qaida affiliate, including that Lebanese authorities release a number of militants in Lebanese prison. Their fate is unknown.

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