Militants prepare to vacate Syria border
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.