BEIRUT – A convoy of ISIS fighters and their families left the Lebanon-Syria border region on Monday under Syrian military escort, surrendering their enclave and traveling to eastern Syria after a week-long battle.
A line of ambulances and buses were shown on Syrian state television driving slowly through the arid countryside, the border’s pale hills behind them, as they departed.
The transfer ends any insurgent presence on the border, an important goal for Lebanon and Hezbollah, and marks the first time ISIS has publicly agreed to a forced evacuation from territory it held in Syria.
“Today, August 28, 2017, is the Second Liberation Day of Lebanon that will be recorded someday in the history of Lebanon and of the region.” Nasrallah said, calling for celebrations on Thursday in the eastern Lebanese city of Baalbek.
ISIS agreed a ceasefire deal that took effect on Sunday with the Lebanese army on one front and Hezbollah with the Syrian army on the other. The extreme militants had lost much of their mountainous enclave straddling the border since the two offensives began on opposite sides of the frontier.
Lebanon’s Hezbollah has been a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad through Syria’s six-year war.
The leader of Hezbollah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, said on Monday in a televised speech, that the group had accepted ISIS evacuation partly in order to find out the fate of nine Lebanese soldiers in ISIS captivity since 2014. Nasrallah declared the end of the offensive and the surrender and withdrawal of ISIS fighters as a victory.
“Today, August 28, 2017, is the Second Liberation Day of Lebanon that will be recorded someday in the history of Lebanon and of the region, whether the Lebanese government recognizes it or not,” Nasrallah said, calling for celebrations to be held Thursday in the eastern Lebanese city of Baalbek.
“We hold only a Lebanese passport. We do not have two nationalities; we are the sons of this land,” he continued, adding that “we have the right to live in this land with dignity. If our country is threatened by an invader or an occupier or terrorist, we will fight it here, we will win here, we will be martyred here and we will be buried here.” Nasrallah said.
The convoy being transferred into Syria included 308 militants with their small arms and 331 civilians, Nasrallah said in a televised speech.
ISIS will hand over one Hezbollah captive and the bodies of some Hezbollah forces and one Iranian fighter killed in battles across Syria, he said.
At the last stage of the deal, the two sides would exchange the bodies for the convoy of militants at a transit point in Syria, Nasrallah said.
Eleven Hezbollah fighters and seven Syrian soldiers had been killed in their offensive in the western Qalamoun region on Syria’s side of the border, he said.
The border battle has ended in “fully liberating Lebanese land and securing the border with Syria,” he said.
Both Hezbollah and Lebanese officials have billed the evacuation as a surrender by ISIS.