U.S. airstrikes dis­rupt evac­u­a­tion of mil­i­tants

Is­lamic State con­voy was leav­ing bor­der of Le­banon, Syria.

Austin American-Statesman - - MORE OF TODAY'S TOP NEWS - By Bassem Mroue

U.S. airstrikes blocked the ad­vance of an Is­lamic State con­voy car­ry­ing mil­i­tants to­ward Iraq on Wed­nes­day, de­rail­ing a Hezbol­lah-ne­go­ti­ated deal that re­moved the ex­trem­ists from the Le­banon-Syria bor­der, where they have been for years.

The airstrikes came amid U.S. crit­i­cism of the deal, re­flect­ing grow­ing out­rage within the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion over the de­ci­sion to give the mil­i­tants safe pas­sage from the bat­tle­field in­stead of killing them, and of Iran­backed Hezbol­lah’s lead­ing role in the ef­fort.

U.S. of­fi­cials said the airstrikes to dis­rupt the flee­ing mil­i­tants were in­tended to send a strong sig­nal that the deal, while help­ing to clear the Is­lamic State from the bor­der, un­der­mined a broader U.S.-led strat­egy for de­feat­ing the group in Syria and Iraq.

More than 48 hours after they left the Syria-Le­banon bor­der for east­ern Syria, the buses car­ry­ing 300 mil­i­tants and al­most as many of their rel­a­tives were stuck in a desert area near the fron­tier with Iraq.

It was not clear how the stand­off would end. Syr­ian ac­tivists said al­ter­nate routes were be­ing con­sid­ered to bring the mil­i­tants to Bouka­mal, an Is­lamic State-con­trolled town on the Iraqi bor­der.

But of­fi­cials of the U.S.-led coali­tion said they would con­tinue to mon­i­tor the con­voy and weren’t rul­ing out more airstrikes.

“Ir­rec­on­cil­able ter­ror­ists should be killed on the bat­tle­field, not bused across Syria to the Iraqi bor­der with­out Iraq’s con­sent,” Brett McGurk, the top U.S. en­voy for the anti-Is­lamic State coali­tion, said in a tweet.

Iraq also re­acted an­grily to the evac­u­a­tion.

Later Wed­nes­day, the coali­tion said its war­planes struck a small bridge and cratered a road to hin­der the con­voy with­out tar­get­ing the evac­uees. Airstrikes also hit a sep­a­rate group of Is­lamic State mil­i­tants trav­el­ing to meet the con­voy, ac­cord­ing to Col. Ryan Dil­lon, a coali­tion spokesman.

Re­spond­ing to the crit­i­cism but not ad­dress­ing the airstrikes, Hezbol­lah leader Has­san Nas­ral­lah said in a state­ment that ne­go­ti­at­ing with the mil­i­tants was the “only way” to re­solve the “hu­man­i­tar­ian and na­tional” is­sue of find­ing the re­mains of nine Le­banese sol­diers the mil­i­tants kid­napped in 2014.

Hezbol­lah is a sig­nif­i­cant player in Le­banon with gov­ern­ment min­is­ters and law­mak­ers, while the role of its fight­ers also has been grow­ing in Syria, where it is help­ing shore up the Iran-al­lied gov­ern­ment of Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad.

The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment, backed by Rus­sian air power and Ira­nian-or­ga­nized mili­tias in­clud­ing Hezbol­lah, has fo­cused its mil­i­tary cam­paign in re­cent weeks on Deir el-Zour, where gov­ern­ment troops have been be­sieged for years in the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal.

Dil­lon crit­i­cized Moscow and Da­m­as­cus for al­low­ing the buses to travel through ter­ri­tory they con­trol.

“To say they are se­ri­ous about de­feat­ing IS looks sus­pect right now,” Dil­lon said.

DALATI NOHRA VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Le­banese Pres­i­dent Michel Aoun (cen­ter) speaks to jour­nal­ists in Baabda, Le­banon, on Wed­nes­day. Aoun praised the Le­banese army for the op­er­a­tion that ended with the deal to evac­u­ate IS fight­ers and their fam­i­lies.

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