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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Al Qaeda-linked militants on brink of defeat along Lebanon-Syria border

Key Jabhat Al Nusra base seized and more than 100 fighters reported killed as offensive by Hizbollah and Syrian army enters fourth day

A handout picture made available by Hizbollah media office on July 23, 2017 shows Hizbollah members during a military operation against ISIL and Nusra Front in Juroud Arsal. EPA
A handout picture made available by Hizbollah media office on July 23, 2017 shows Hizbollah members during a military operation against ISIL and Nusra Front in Juroud Arsal. EPA

Hizbollah said on Monday it was close to routing Al Qaeda’s former Syria branch Jabhat Al Nusra from Lebanon’s border with Syria as its offensive in the area entered a fourth day.

The Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite group said it had advanced from several directions in the Wadi Al Kheil valley in Jurud Arsal, a barren mountainous border zone that has served as a base for Al Nusra and ISIL.

The advance gave Hizbollah control over Al Nusra's "most important base" the area, its military media unit said.

With Al Nusra losing territory near the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Hizbollah is expected to soon turn its attention to nearby ISIL positions.

By Sunday, 143 militants and 19 Hizbollah fighters had been killed in the battle, security sources told the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper. Another 13 militants were killed on Monday morning, while dozens have been captured, the paper said.

The casualties deal a significant blow to Al Nusra and ISIL’s chances of survival in the area, where their combined strength before the offensive was estimated to be only in the hundreds.

Hizbollah on Monday called on the remaining militants in the border region to surrender, promising to guarantee the safety of those who did. By Monday afternoon, Hizbollah's Al Manar TV was reporting that large numbers of Al Nusra fighters were fleeing towards ISIL lines in the area.

Although ISIL and Al Nusra are at war in Syria, the groups' forces along the border put aside their differences to jointly attack and briefly capture Arsal in 2014. Since then, however, they have been largely cut off from supplies and reinforcements and soon returned to fighting one another. They have also faced frequent artillery bombardment by the Lebanese army, which significantly bolstered its strength along the border with the help of foreign military aid. Despite the looming threat of the border offensive, the outnumbered extremists failed to join forces.

While Hizbollah is engaged in heavy fighting against the militants on both the Lebanese and Syrian sides of the border, the Syrian government has attacked Al Nusra positions in the area as well, using tanks, ground troops and air strikes.

Lebanon's government had said it would take the lead in the fight to drive Al Nusra and ISIL from its side of the border, but so far its troops have played only a defensive and supportive role, engaging militants as they flee towards Lebanese army positions.

Al Nusra and ISIL have been responsible a number of deadly bombings in Lebanon since 2013, and driving them from the border region will be welcomed by many Lebanese. However, the army’s limited role in the operation could also drive up tensions between supporters of Hizbollah and those who resent its dominance in Lebanon. The group's military support for president Bashar Al Assad in Syria's civil war has also angered many Lebanese.

Hizbollah is likely to feature in talks between the Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, an opponent of the group, and US president Donald Trump in Washington on Tuesday.

The US considers Hizbollah a terrorist organisation and has been a major donor of military aid to Lebanon's army in recent years, hoping to turn it into a counterweight to the group and to help it protect the border area from extremist militants. However, the army's continued back-seat role to Hizbollah could make the US rethink its support.

With reporting from Reuters

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