Al-Qaida fighters evacuate Lebanon
BEIRUT — More than 100 buses carrying thousands of al-Qaida-linked fighters and Syrian refugees drove from Lebanon to Syria on Wednesday, in what was the last phase of an exchange deal between Syria’s al-Qaida branch and Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group.
The departure of al-Qaida fighters from the LebanonSyria border came three years to the day after its fighters stormed the Lebanese border town of Arsal and captured two dozen soldiers, killing some in captivity and releasing others. The group’s presence in Lebanon has left scores of people dead.
More than 7,000 Syrian refugees and gunmen, including a top al-Qaida operative in Syria known as Abu Malek al-Talli, were aboard the 113 buses that left Lebanon’s Arsal region toward the Syrian border village of Fleeta, according to the government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media.
The militants’ and civilians’ final destination will be the jihadi-held part of northwestern Syria, according to an agreement among Lebanon, Syria, Hezbollah, and Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate. That group is known as the Hay’at Tahrir al Sham militant alliance — Arabic for the Levant Liberation Committee.
Hezbollah combatants have been fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces since 2013, and the Iran-backed group is still deeply involved in Syria’s civil war, now in its seventh year.
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 fighters besieged.