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Middle East

Lebanon suspends offensive against IS group to negotiate return of soldiers

© AFP

Video by Adam PLETTS

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2017-08-27

Ceasefires took effect Sunday in the border area between Syria and Lebanon, halting separate but simultaneous offensives against the Islamic State group by the Lebanese army on one side and Hezbollah and Syrian troops on the other.

The two sides say they have driven the militants from most of the Lebanon-Syria border region with the Syrian official news agency SANA saying the area along the border would soon be declared free of IS militants.

A group of around 400 remaining militants and their families are expected to be evacuated further east inside Syria, toward Deir el-Zour, a city that is mostly controlled by the IS group, according to Syrian media reports.

Lebanese defence and military officials said the ceasefire deal with the IS group also enabled negotiations over the fate of several Lebanese soldiers captured by the jihadists from a Lebanese enclave near the Syrian border three years ago.

Hours after the ceasefire was declared early Sunday, a senior Lebanese military officer said six bodies, believed to be of some of the soldiers captured in 2014, were found buried near the Syrian border.

Abbas Ibrahim, chief of Lebanese General Security, said an operation to dig out six bodies was underway Sunday. Two more bodies are believed to have been buried there, according to Ibrahim, and a search for a ninth soldier continues.

DNA tests will be carried out to determine the identity of the soldiers, according to senior Lebanese military officials.

Lebanese troops battling IS group jihadists seen as heroes

Lebanon split between Assad supporters and opponents

The US-backed Lebanese military insists it is not coordinating its anti-IS group offensive with the Syrian army or Hezbollah, which Washington considers a terrorist group.

However the twin offensive against the jihadist group was launched last week simultaneously by the two sides, with the Lebanese army fighting the IS group near Ras Baalbek, while the Syrian army and Hezbollah attacked from Syria's west Qalamoun region.

Reporting from the Lebanese capital, Beirut, FRANCE 24’s Adam Pletts explained that the Lebanese military was treading a fine line in their latest offensive against the IS group.

“The Lebanese Army has always been clear that there is absolutely no cooperation with the Syrian army or Hezbollah in any of the operations that are taking place -- even though the start of the offensive and the ceasefire was announced simultaneously,” explained Pletts. “But really the issue here is one of Lebanon’s stance on Syria. Lebanon is pretty divided. Obviously there’s Hezbollah -- who are Syrian government supporters -- fighting on the side of [Syrian President] Bashar al Assad. But you have other groups here, particularly Sunni political groups, who are supporters of the opposition, or certainly opponents of Assad.”

All eyes on Deir el-Zour

As negotiations for the evacuation of IS militants to Deir el-Zour were underway, Syrian troops backed by Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias have pushed their way into the province from Sukhna area, in the country's center.

The government troops and its allied militias have been moving toward Deir el-Zour province from three different angles - in central, northern and southern Syria. The new advances bring the pro-government troops about 65 kilometers (40 kilometers) from the provincial capital, where IS militants have besieged government troops for years.  IS controls most of the oil-rich province of Deir el-Zour, except for the government troops presence in the capital.

Russian officials have said the priority is now to aid government troops in recapturing Deir el-Zour. The province is southeast of Raqqa, where the U.S-backed Syrian opposition forces are battling the Islamic state militants.

U.S-backed forces, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, are also making a bid for Deir el-Zour province, raising concerns of a potential friction with the Syrian troops.

Late on Saturday, Islamic State militants attacked a base of the SDF forces in Shaddadi town, about 120 kilometers (74 miles) north of Deir el-Zour. Bassem Aziz, of the SDF media center in the area, said 12 IS militants attacked their offices, including four suicide bombers. Aziz said the attack continued into the early hours of Sunday, and was foiled, leaving the attackers killed and a number of SDF fighters injured.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

Date created : 2017-08-27

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