Ex­change of bod­ies ahead of Syria-Le­banon bor­der plan

Hezbol­lah handed over bod­ies of nine al-Qaida fight­ers in ex­change for bod­ies of five of its own

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - WORLD -

Hezbol­lah and a Syr­ian af­fil­i­ate to Al-Qaida ex­changed the bod­ies of dead fight­ers along the Le­banese-Syr­ian bor­der on Sun­day in the first stage of an agree­ment to re­store or­der to a con­tested fron­tier zone.

The al-Qaida-linked Fatah alSham Front is ex­pected to leave the bor­der re­gion in the com­ing stages, fol­low­ing two weeks of bat­tles with Hezbol­lah and the Syr­ian army.

But the Front an­nounced Sun­day it had cap­tured three Hezbol­lah fight­ers, one day af­ter Hezbol­lah ad­mit­ted a group had gone miss­ing in the Ar­sal bor­der re­gion. It was not im­me­di­ately clear whether the rev­e­la­tion would af­fect the deal un­der­way to re­set­tle the Fatah al-Sham Front.

The Le­banese mil­i­tant group Hezbol­lah handed over the bod­ies of nine al-Qaida fight­ers in ex­change for the bod­ies of five of its own, ac­cord­ing to the Hezbol­lah’s Al-Ma­nar TV sta­tion.

Le­banese Red Cross spokesman Ge­orge Kat­tani says a woman and child were also handed over to the al-Qaida af­fil­i­ate, known as the Nusra Front and re­cently re­branded as Fatah al-Sham Front.

The ex­change, like the bat­tles that pre­ceded it, un­der­scores Hezbol­lah’s clout in re­gional af­fairs as it clears the bor­der of alQaida and Is­lamic State group mil­i­tants, with the Le­banese gov­ern­ment largely a by­stander.

U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump cred­ited the Le­banese gov­ern­ment with stand­ing up to Hezbol­lah, last week, but the Le­banese Army as­sumed a de­fen­sive po­si­tion be­hind Hezbol­lah lines in the course of the bat­tles in the Ar­sal bad­lands. Hezbol­lah is also a mem­ber of Prime Min­is­ter Saad Hariri’s gov­ern­ment.

The U.S. clas­si­fies Hezbol­lah as a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion.

The Syr­ian mil­i­tary pro­vided air sup­port to Hezbol­lah’s ground oper­a­tions around Ar­sal. Hezbol­lah’s Sec­re­tary Gen­eral, Has­san Nas­ral­lah, said in a speech Wed­nes­day his fight­ers fought “shoul­der to shoul­der’’ with Syr­ian sol­diers on the Syr­ian side of the bor­der.

Twenty-six Hezbol­lah fight­ers and be­tween 47 and 90 Al-Qaida fight­ers were killed in the fight­ing, Hezbol­lah me­dia of­fi­cials told re­porters on a tour of the Ar­sal bad­lands on Sat­ur­day.

The fight­ing ended with a cease-fire Thurs­day for ne­go­ti­a­tions to al­low refugees, fight­ers, and fam­ily mem­bers to leave to Syria’s north­west Idlib prov­ince, leav­ing Hezbol­lah and the Le­banese and Syr­ian states in con­trol of this cor­ner of the bor­der. Up to 9,000 Syr­i­ans could be seek­ing re­set­tle­ment, al-Ma­nar re­ported.

Le­banon has been buf­feted by the fall­out and oc­ca­sional spillover of the civil war next door. It has taken in one mil­lion refugees, ac­cord­ing to the UN, and suf­fered a num­ber of bomb blasts claimed by the Is­lamic State group and alQaida af­fil­i­ated groups.

The bor­der town of Ar­sal was over­run by al-Qaida and Is­lamic State mil­i­tants in 2014 be­fore Hezbol­lah and the Le­banese Army sent them back. They have re­mained en­sconced in the rugged hills east of Ar­sal ever since.

Around 80,000 refugees live near Ar­sal. Many of them were dis­placed by fight­ing be­tween rebels and Hezbol­lah in 2012 and 2013.

Syria is frac­tured af­ter six years of civil war, and an al-Qaida af­fil­i­ate con­trols Idlib. The war broke out af­ter Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad gov­ern­ment cracked down on demon­stra­tions for re­forms in 2011. The Bri­tain-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights mon­i­tor­ing group es­ti­mates some 475,000 peo­ple have been killed, and As­sad re­mains in power in Da­m­as­cus.

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