BEIRUT — Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement and jihadist militants on Sunday exchanged the bodies of fighters as part of a ceasefire deal for the restive Syria-Lebanon border.
The truce, announced by the Shiite movement and confirmed by Lebanon’s General Security agency last Thursday, ended six days of a Hezbollah-led assault on Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian branch in the mountainous Jurud Arsal border region.
Hezbollah’s "War Media" outlet reported that the "first phase of the deal" took place on Sunday.
"The bodies of nine Al-Nusra fighters were exchanged for the remains of five Hezbollah fighters who died in the Jurud battles," it said.
The second phase was due on Monday with the return to Syria of 9,000 jihadists and their families who have been in eastern Lebanon since the beginning of the Syria war, Hezbollah’s news agency said.
In exchange, an undetermined number of Hezbollah prisoners would be freed.
The "War Media" outlet said the bodies of the Syrian militants were handed over to the Lebanon’s General Security and their remains were to be transported to Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib.
Al-Nusra Front was Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria until mid-2016 when it broke off ties, before going on to found a new jihadist-led alliance called
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which now controls large swathes of Idlib.
Hezbollah launched its offensive on Jurud Arsal -- a barren border area used by militants as a hideout for several years -- on July 21.
The group took media outlets on several guided tours of the territory it had secured, including an underground base allegedly used by militants.
Military-style vests were piled in one corner near stacked sandbags. Papers were strewn all over the carpeted floor in one room, and crates of ammunition were stored in another.
Hezbollah had cornered rival fighters in a small pocket of territory when it announced the truce.
Head of Lebanon’s General Security agency Major General Ibrahim Abbas confirmed the deal, saying it would also see the transfer "within days" of Syrian fighters and refugees to Idlib province with the help of Lebanon’s Red Cross.
Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees live in the town of Arsal, adjacent to the border region, and an unknown number are also thought to have taken shelter in the surrounding mountains.
More than one million Syrians are registered with the United Nations as refugees in Lebanon, a country of just four million people. — AFP