Syrian rebels and refugees start to leave Lebanon border area
A group of Syrian rebel fighters and refugees began their evacuation from an enclave in Lebanon on the border with Syria back into Syrian territory on Monday, the Hezbollah-affiliated al-Manar television reported.
Some 300 rebels from a group called Saraya Ahl al-Sham, as well as about 3,000 refugees, are to leave Lebanon under a deal that followed an assault by the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah on insurgent positions last month.
Their departure will leave an Islamic State group (IS) enclave as the last militant stronghold straddling the border near the Lebanese town of Arsal, which is home to tens of thousands of refugees. A Lebanese army offensive against IS is expected to start soon.
On Friday, the Lebanese security official overseeing the arrangements, General Abbas Ibrahim, said that a group of civilians would go to Assal al-Ward, an area just across the border from Arsal and held by the Syrian government.
The fighters and their families will go to another part of Syria which he did not identify. A military media unit run by Hezbollah last week said they would go to the rebel-held town of al-Ruhaiba in the Eastern Qalamoun region.
The group's departure follows that of the Nusra Front, which quit its enclave on the border early this month for rebel-held Idlib, in northwest Syria, after its defeat in a Hezbollah offensive.
During that evacuation and others of rebel groups inside Syria to insurgent-held areas, the Syrian government has allowed them to travel under protection in buses and carry small arms. This time, civilians will be allowed to travel in their own cars, Ibrahim said.
Hezbollah is a Lebanese Shia group that has been a close ally of Assad during Syria's six-year civil war, fighting mostly Sunni rebels seeking to oust him.
The movement of rebel and militant factions across Syria's border with Lebanon represented the biggest military spillover of its civil war into its tiny neighbour.
The factions took positions in the hills that straddle the border around the northeastern Lebanese town of Arsal, home to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. More than one million Syrians have sought shelter in Lebanon during the war.
Last week, Hezbollah's leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, said that while the Lebanese army would lead the offensive against IS inside Lebanon, his group and the Syrian army would simultaneously attack it on the Syrian side of the border.
A Lebanese military source later said that this would not entail any direct military coordination between the Lebanese and Syrian armies.