Thou­sands to be evac­u­ated from Lebanon-Syria bor­der Of­fen­sives leave Al-Qaeda fight­ers be­sieged

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Scores of buses and am­bu­lances ar­rived at the Lebanon-Syria bor­der yes­ter­day for the sec­ond phase of an ex­change be­tween Lebanon’s mil­i­tant Hezbol­lah group and Syria’s Al-Qaeda af­fil­i­ate that would lead to the re­set­tle­ment of thou­sands of refugees in Syria. It was not im­me­di­ately clear if the evac­u­a­tion will go ahead as sched­uled, or will be de­layed, be­cause the reg­is­tra­tion of thou­sands of Syr­i­ans who want to re­turn home is tak­ing longer than ex­pected.

The evac­u­a­tion deal fol­lowed a mil­i­tary of­fen­sive by Hezbol­lah fight­ers and Syr­ian troops dur­ing which they cap­tured bor­der ar­eas be­tween the two coun­tries and left hun­dreds of Al-Qaeda fight­ers be­sieged in a small rugged moun­tain­ous area. 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 and the cen­tral Qalam­oun re­gion.

As part of the deal, the two groups on Sun­day ex­changed the bodies of their dead fight­ers. Hezbol­lah handed over the bodies of nine alQaida fight­ers in ex­change for the bodies of five of its own. Un­der the sec­ond phase, about 9,000 Syr­i­ans, in­clud­ing hun­dreds of al-Qaida fight­ers, are to re­turn to Syria. In ex­change, eight Hezbol­lah fight­ers held by Al-Qaeda’s Syria af­fil­i­ate, Fatah Al­Sham Front, will be re­turned home.

Also to be evac­u­ated are mem­bers of the Le­vant Peo­ple’s Brigades rebel group whose mem­bers did not take part in last week’s bat­tles. Those fight­ers will head to the gov­ern­ment-held town of Ruhaiba, about 50 kilo­me­ters north­east of the Syr­ian cap­i­tal Dam­as­cus where they will ben­e­fit from an amnesty by the state and re­turn to nor­mal life, ac­cord­ing to Hezbol­lah’s Al-Ma­nar TV. The gov­ern­ment-con­trolled Syr­ian Cen­tral Mil­i­tary Me­dia re­leased video and pho­tos of the buses and am­bu­lances near the Lebanese bor­der town of Ar­sal and the Syr­ian vil­lage of Fleeta pre­par­ing for the evac­u­a­tions. SCMM said the con­voy head­ing to Idlib will drive through the cen­tral prov­ince of Homs then to the north­ern prov­ince of Aleppo be­fore reach­ing Idlib.

In the north­ern city of Raqqa, at least two peo­ple were killed when a mine planted by mem­bers of the Is­lamic State group ex­ploded, Syr­ian op­po­si­tion ac­tivists said. The ex­plo­sion in Na­zlet She­hadeh struck some peo­ple who were try­ing to flee vi­o­lence in the city, said the Bri­tain­based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights and the ac­tivist-run group Raqqa is Be­ing Slaugh­tered Silently.

The US-backed Kur­dish-led Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces have been on the of­fen­sive in the de facto cap­i­tal of IS since June 6, cap­tur­ing al­most half of the city. Nearly two months of fight­ing have left hun­dreds of peo­ple dead and wounded. The in­ter­na­tional med­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion MÈdecins Sans Fron­tiËres, or Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders, said in a state­ment yes­ter­day that sick and in­jured civil­ians within and out­side Raqqa are fac­ing ma­jor dif­fi­cul­ties ob­tain­ing ur­gent life-sav­ing med­i­cal due to the fight­ing.

“Pa­tients tell us large num­bers of sick and wounded peo­ple are trapped inside Raqqa city with lit­tle or no ac­cess to med­i­cal care and scant chance of es­cap­ing the city,” said Vanessa Cra­mond, MSF med­i­cal co­or­di­na­tor for Tur­key and north Syria.

The MSF state­ment said that since the SDF of­fen­sive be­gan, its med­i­cal teams in north­east Syria have treated 415 pa­tients from Raqqa and sur­round­ing vil­lages. Most pa­tients are civil­ians with con­flict-re­lated in­juries caused by bombs, land mines, un­ex­ploded ord­nance, shrap­nel and gun­shot wounds, the state­ment said. The lim­ited num­ber of pa­tients treated by MSF who man­aged to flee Raqqa city say that the only way to leave is by be­ing smug­gled out, caus­ing dan­ger­ous de­lays in ac­cess­ing ur­gent med­i­cal treat­ment.

This photo re­leased yes­ter­day by the gov­ern­ment-con­trolled Syr­ian Cen­tral Mil­i­tary Me­dia, shows am­bu­lances of the Syr­ian Arab Red Cres­cent gath­er­ing in the Syr­ian bor­der vil­lage of Fleeta. —AP

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