Mil­i­tants pre­pare to va­cate Syria bor­der

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NEWS - BASSEM MROUE

BEIRUT — Scores of buses and am­bu­lances ar­rived at the Le­banon-Syria bor­der Mon­day for the sec­ond phase of an ex­change be­tween Le­banon’s mil­i­tant Hezbol­lah group and Syria’s al-Qaida af­fil­i­ate that would lead to the re­set­tle­ment of thou­sands of refugees in Syria.

It was not im­me­di­ately clear whether the evac­u­a­tion would go ahead Mon­day as sched­uled or be de­layed be­cause the reg­is­tra­tion of thou­sands of Syr­i­ans who want to re­turn home was tak­ing longer than ex­pected.

The evac­u­a­tion deal fol­lowed a mil­i­tary of­fen­sive by Hezbol­lah fight­ers and Syr­ian troops dur­ing which they cap­tured bor­der ar­eas and left hun­dreds of al-Qaida-linked 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 for 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 al-Qaidalinked fight­ers in ex­change for the bodies of five of its own.

Un­der the sec­ond phase, about 9,000 Syr­i­ans, in­clud­ing hun­dreds of al-Qaida-linked fight­ers, are to re­turn to Syria. In ex­change, eight Hezbol­lah fight­ers held by al-Qaida’s Syria af­fil­i­ate, Jab­hat Fatah al-Sham, 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 31 miles north­east of the Syr­ian cap­i­tal, Da­m­as­cus, where they will ben­e­fit from amnesty by the state and will re­turn to nor­mal life, ac­cord­ing to Hezbol­lah’s AlMa­nar TV.

The gov­ern­ment-con­trolled Syr­ian Cen­tral Mil­i­tary Me­dia re­leased video and photos of the buses and am­bu­lances pre­par­ing for the evac­u­a­tions near the Le­banese bor­der town of Ar­sal and the Syr­ian vil­lage of Fleeta. Syr­ian Cen­tral Mil­i­tary Me­dia said the con­voy head­ing to Idlib will drive through the cen­tral prov­ince of Homs and 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 mil­i­tant group ex­ploded, Syr­ian op­po­si­tion ac­tivists said. The ex­plo­sion in the Na­zlet She­hadeh neigh­bor­hood struck some peo­ple who were try­ing to flee vi­o­lence in the city, said the Bri­tain-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights and the ac­tivist-run group Raqqa is Be­ing Slaugh­tered Silently.

The U.S.-backed, Kur­dish-led Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces has been on the of­fen­sive in the de­clared cap­i­tal of the Is­lamic State since June 6, cap­tur­ing al­most half the city. Nearly two months of fight­ing has left hun­dreds of peo­ple dead and wounded.

The in­ter­na­tional med­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders said in a state­ment Mon­day that sick or in­jured civil­ians in and out­side Raqqa are fac­ing ma­jor dif­fi­cul­ties ob­tain­ing ur­gent life-sav­ing med­i­cal treat­ment be­cause of 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, the group’s med­i­cal co­or­di­na­tor for Turkey and north Syria.

The Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders state­ment said that since the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces’ of­fen­sive be­gan, the med­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion’s 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 Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders who man­aged to flee Raqqa said that the only way to leave is by be­ing smug­gled out, caus­ing dan­ger­ous de­lays in ac­cess­ing ur­gent med­i­cal treat­ment.

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