27 August 2017

Syria-Lebanon border battle against IS paused

Lebanese army soldiers are seen flashing victory signs in the town of Ras Baalbek, Lebanon August 21, 2017.Image copyright

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Lebanese soldiers flash victory signs in the town of Ras Baalbek

A ceasefire has been declared in offensives against so-called Islamic State on the Syria-Lebanon border.

The militants have been fighting the Lebanese army on one front, and Hezbollah with the Syrian army on the other.

Lebanon’s army said the pause in operations would enable talks over nine soldiers taken hostage when IS overran the border town of Arsal in 2014.

Lebanese sources said IS had “succumbed under fire and asked for negotiations”.

Both ceasefires came into effect at 07:00 (04:00 GMT).

The twin offensives by the Lebanese army, and the Syrian army and its Lebanese militia ally Hezbollah, have advanced towards the border from opposite sides.

Lebanon’s army has been fighting IS near the town of Ras Baalbek, while the Syrian army and Hezbollah have attacked from Syria’s west Qalamoun region.

The Lebanese army insists it is not co-ordinating with Hezbollah, which the US classes as a terrorist group. Any such liaison would be politically sensitive in Lebanon, and could jeopardise US military aid it receives.

Last week, Lebanon and Hezbollah each announced they had made significant gains against IS militants, driving them back into a smaller part of the mountainous border enclave.

A question of appearances

Rami Ruhayem, BBC News in Beirut

The Lebanese army’s insistence that it is not co-ordinating with Hezbollah or the Syrian army flies in the face of recent developments.

On the same day as the start of its operations in July, Hezbollah and the Syrian army announced their own offensive from the other side of the border. Between them, the two armies and Hezbollah have had the militants surrounded, and were able to quickly retake most of the territory they held.

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Hezbollah fighters pictured in a truck in Jroud Arsal, near the Syria-Lebanon border

The ceasefire came into effect today at the same time on both sides of the border. And a few weeks before the battle, Hezbollah fought to clear an adjacent area from another group of militants, and handed over its positions to the Lebanese army.

The official position appears designed to manage differences over Lebanon’s relationship with the Syrian government, as well as the growing role of Hezbollah in the country.

Lebanon has said the nine troops taken hostage by IS are its “top concern” in the offensive against an estimated 600 IS fighters.

Some 30 soldiers and police were captured in Arsal, of whom four were killed and a fifth died of his wounds. Sixteen were released in a prisoner swap in December 2015 with Islamist group Nusra Front.

“There has been no timeframe set” for the truce, an army source told AFP.

“The negotiations are ongoing for IS to withdraw and provide information on the fate of the troops.”

The area around Arsal is home to tens of thousands of refugees from the war in Syria. The influx has heightened sectarian tensions inside Lebanon since the conflict began in 2011.

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