Freed Hezbollah fighter welcomed home
South Lebanon town of Seer rejoices at Daesh’s release of Ahmad Maatouk
SEER, Lebanon: Returning home to a street celebration Thursday, a Hezbollah fighter freed by Daesh (ISIS) the evening before was welcomed by his family and supporters in south Lebanon.
Upon seeing his children for the first time since his release late Wednesday, Ahmad Maatouk broke down in tears, fell to his knees and kissed their small hands.
“I was dreaming every day, that my father would return to us,” the young Hasan Maatouk told The Daily Star at the celebration. “Now he has and he will buy me a [toy] rifle.”
Dressed like his father in military fatigues, the young boy added: “I have missed him and today we will eat well and play a lot, because my father is home.”
The Hezbollah fighter, who had been in captivity in eastern Syria, was released late Wednesday night by Daesh as part of a deal that ended a successful military offensive against the group on the Lebanese-Syrian border.
His hometown of Seer in the southern Nabatieh district turned out in force to welcome him back.
Onlookers flanked the street waving both Hezbollah and Amal Movement flags while cheering him on.
Many families in the south have lost young men to Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian war to prop up the regime of Bashar Assad. However, families in Seer that had lost sons still joined the celebration.
“We cannot express our level of happiness,” Diya, who lost her son in Syria, told The Daily Star. “I do not exaggerate when I say that I see the face of my son, Mohammad Bakir, who fell … in Syria, in the face of Ahmad.”
As Ahmad Maatouk spoke to the crowds from a small stage in the town he said: “I have returned to be where I need to be – next to my brothers in the Islamic resistance.”
Maatouk’s release came after a two-pronged attack targeted Daesh positions on the Syrian-Lebanese border. The Lebanese Army attacked the militants from the Lebanese side of the border, while Hezbollah and the Syrian army – in an unrelated offensive – attacked the militants from the Syrian side.
There was no coordination between the two attacking parties. The battle came to end after Daesh agreed to disclose the location of the remains of eight Army soldiers taken hostage by the group in 2014, when the militants briefly overran Lebanon’s northeastern border town of Arsal, as well as two other soldiers killed in the area.
The successful operation was branded by Hezbollah as one of their most important victories, second only to the party’s success in the war against Israel in 2006.
As part of the cease-fire deal, Daesh militants and their families were guaranteed safe passage to the Syrian city of Deir al-Zor.
The return of the remains of Hezbollah fighters was also demanded, as was the release of those captured in battles in eastern and southern Syria.
Hezbollah’s secretary-general, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, also called for the release of two bishops kidnapped in Aleppo and cameraman for Sky News Arabia Samir Kassab.
According to Nasrallah, Daesh claimed that they were not in possession of the bishops or Kassab and so could not hand them over. But they had admitted to holding Maatouk in Deir al-Zor.
As stipulated by the cease-fire deal, a convoy of buses carrying Daesh fighters and their families left the border areas, bound for Deir alZor, soon after the conclusion of the fighting on Aug. 28.
But the U.S.-led anti-terror coalition soon halted the convoy, bombing roads and a bridge to strand the buses. U.S. officials stated that the government had not been party to the deal and would not accept the free movement of Daesh militants.
The coalition monitored the buses, picking off fighters if they strayed too far from the main body of the convoy, which was also transporting civilians.
The U.S.-led coalition said last Friday that surveillance of the convoy had been removed at the request of the Russian military. Russia, an ally of Bashar Assad’s regime in the Syrian conflict, was carrying out airstrikes to support Syrian ground operations in Deir al-Zor province that passed the area in which the convoy was waiting near the town of Sukhneh in eastern Homs province.
“To ensure the safe deconfliction of efforts to defeat ISIS, coalition surveillance aircraft departed the adjacent airspace at the request of Russian officials during their assault on Deir al-Zor,” the coalition said in a statement.
AFP reported that the buses that arrived Wednesday carried some 200 militants and 200 civilians after the original convoy of nearly 600 fighters and families had split into two while stuck in limbo.
The second convoy that only included civilians had already headed elsewhere.
A source on the ground told AFP that “the operation is done, [the] Daesh convoy [has] reached Deir alZor province.” – Additional reporting by AFP
Maatouk returns home to joyous celebrations in south Lebanon.