Ex­change of bod­ies ahead of Syria-Le­banon bor­der plan

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Hezbol­lah and Al-Qaeda be­gan ex­chang­ing the bod­ies of dead fight­ers along the Le­banese-Syr­ian bor­der yes­ter­day in the first stage of a set­tle­ment to re­store or­der to a con­tested fron­tier zone. The Le­banese mil­i­tant group Hezbol­lah was hand­ing over the bod­ies of nine Al-Qaeda fight­ers in ex­change for the bod­ies of five of its own, fol­low­ing two weeks of bat­tles along the rugged bor­der, its Al-Ma­nar TV sta­tion re­ported. The ex­change, like the bat­tles that pre­ceded it, un­der­scores Hezbol­lah’s clout in re­gional af­fairs as it clears the bor­der of Al-Qaeda and Is­lamic State group mil­i­tants on be­half of the Le­banese and Syr­ian state mil­i­taries.

US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump cred­ited the Le­banese gov­ern­ment with stand­ing up to Hezbol­lah, last week, but the truth is Hezbol­lah played the role of the Le­banese and Syr­ian mil­i­taries in the op­er­a­tions in the Ar­sal bad­lands in the bor­der. Hezbol­lah is also a mem­ber of Prime Min­is­ter Saad Hariri’s gov­ern­ment. The US clas­si­fies Hezbol­lah as a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion. The Syr­ian mil­i­tary pro­vided air sup­port to Hezbol­lah’s ground op­er­a­tions around Ar­sal, while the Le­banese mil­i­tary as­sumed a de­fen­sive po­si­tion be­hind Hezbol­lah lines.

Twenty-six Hezbol­lah fight­ers and be­tween 47 and 90 Al-Qaeda 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 1 mil­lion refugees, ac­cord­ing to the UN, and suf­fered a num­ber of bomb blasts claimed by the Is­lamic State group and al-Qaida af­fil­i­ated groups. The bor­der town of Ar­sal was over­run by Al-Qaida and Is­lamic State group mil­i­tants in 2014 be­fore Hezbol­lah and the Le­banese Army turned them back out. 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-Qaeda 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. Hezbol­lah is ex­pected to launch another of­fen­sive dis­lodge the Is­lamic State group from a sec­ond sec­tion of the bor­der. —AP

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