IS convoy stuck after being blocked by US airstrikes
BEIRUT (AP) — A convoy of Islamic State militants being evacuated from the Lebanon-Syria border was moved to another Syrian government-held area Thursday after their passage to IS-held territory further east was blocked by U.S.-led airstrikes.
More than 300 militants and their families are in the convoy of buses after vacating the border area as part of a Hezbollah-negotiated deal to transport them to an IS-held town in eastern Syria near the Iraqi border.
The deal has angered Iraq and the U.S., which launched airstrikes Wednesday to block the convoy’s advance.
After being stuck for hours at an exchange point, the buses moved further north to a government-controlled area while negotiations continued in search of a new way to reach an IS-held area further east.
Earlier in the day, IS handed over to Hezbollah the body of a recently captured Iranian Revolutionary Guard member as part of the deal.
The Lebanese Hezbollah group, which negotiated the controversial agreement, said it had received the body of Mohsen Hojaji and would conduct DNA tests before sending his remains onward to Iran. The handover was reported by the Hezbollah-run Al-Manar TV.
The militants revealed the locations of the remains of Lebanese soldiers captured in 2014 in exchange for safe passage through Syrian government-held territory to an IS-held area near the Iraqi border.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Thursday that he met personally with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Syria to ask for his help in securing a deal that would help clear the Lebanon-Syria border area and uncover the fate of the Lebanese soldiers.
“I went to President Assad ... I went to Damascus,” he said, adding that he sought to convince Assad to let the convoy pass through government territory.
“He (Assad) told me, this is embarrassing for us, but no problem,” Nasrallah told supporters gathered in eastern Lebanon for a “victory rally” to celebrate the expulsion of IS from the border area.
“The Syrian government has put up with the embarrassment for the sake of Lebanon,” he said.
U.S. airstrikes on Wednesday destroyed a small bridge and cratered a road, forcing the convoy to halt. The U.S. has not targeted the evacuees themselves, but has struck other groups of IS militants in eastern Syria.
Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said some ambulances that were part of the IS convoy were able to cross into IS-held territories in Syria. He added that Hojaji’s body was released after the ambulances carrying wounded IS fighters made it to areas held by the extremists. He said the group is exploring secret ways in which the convoy can cross into IS-held areas without being targeted by the U.S.-led coalition.
Nasrallah said earlier this week that the deal would include the handover of a Hezbollah fighter held by IS as well as the bodies of two Hezbollah members and Hojaji. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah are fighting alongside Assad’s forces.
Coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon said that they continue to monitor the buses.
“The buses have not made it to ISIS-held territory and we will stick with what we said yesterday and that is we can strike ISIS elements without harming civilians whenever and wherever we will,” Dillon said, using a term to refer to IS. He added that they struck several vehicles in IS-held parts of Syria overnight.
Also Thursday, Syrian activists and Iranian state TV said Syrian troops and allied forces seized a strategic mountain overlooking Deir el-Zour province, which is mostly controlled by IS. Syrian government forces control part of the provincial capital of the same name and its airport, but have been besieged by IS for years.
Russia, which is providing air support to Assad’s forces, says capturing the oil-rich Deir el-Zour province is the current military priority.
The Observatory said the advancing forces gained control of the Bishri Mountains on Thursday. Iran’s state-run Al-Alam TV also reported the advance.