Freed Hezbol­lah fighter wel­comed home

South Le­banon town of Seer re­joices at Daesh’s re­lease of Ah­mad Maa­touk

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LEBANON - By Mo­hammed Zaatari

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.

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