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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Hizbollah says nearing victory in battle at Lebanon-Syria border

The Hizbollah chief said that as soon as the fighting ends, the Iranian-backed group would be ready to hand over territory it has captured if the Lebanese army requests it

A grab picture from Hizbollah's Al Manar TV shows Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah giving a televised address from an undisclosed location in Lebanon on July 26, 2017. EPA / Hizbollah Media Office
A grab picture from Hizbollah's Al Manar TV shows Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah giving a televised address from an undisclosed location in Lebanon on July 26, 2017. EPA / Hizbollah Media Office

The leader of Lebanon's Hizbollah said that the group was close to defeating Jabhat Al Nusra militants in the battle along the Syrian-Lebanese border.

"We are in the face of a very big military victory," Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised speech on Wednesday evening. The militants have "effectively lost" most of the land they held in the barren, mountainous border region of Jurud Arsal, he added.

As soon as the fighting ends, the Shiite Iranian-backed Hizbollah would be ready to hand over territory it has captured if the Lebanese army requests it, he said.

Hizbollah has made rapid advances since it launched an offensive with the Syrian army on Friday to drive Sunni militants from their last foothold along the frontier.

In the outskirts of the Lebanese town of Arsal, the operation has focused on the ex-Jabhat Al Nusra, Al Qaeda's Syria branch until last year when it severed ties and rebranded. The next phase is expected to target a nearby enclave in the hands of ISIL militants.

The Lebanese army, a big recipient of US and British military support, has not taken part in the offensive and has set up defensive positions around Arsal, which Mr Nasrallah described as essential.

Negotiations began on Tuesday between Lebanese officials and the Jabhat Al Nusra over the withdrawal of remaining militants to insurgent-held territory in Syria, he also said.

"There is seriousness, better than at any previous time," Mr Nasrallah said. But he added that militant demands remained unreasonable and that the Lebanese state, the Syrian government, and Hizbollah must each agree to the terms.

Hizbollah has played a major role in fighting militants in the border region during the six-year Syrian war, along with critical military support it has provided to Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.

On the Syrian side of the border, Hizbollah fought "shoulder to shoulder" with the Syrian army around the town of Fleita in recent days and cleared the area of insurgents, Mr Nasrallah said.

Security sources say some two dozen Hizbollah fighters have been killed overall, and nearly 150 militants.

Refugee camps

Early in the offensive, Saraya Ahl Al Sham — the Free Syrian Army rebel faction that had a small presence in the area — pulled its fighters from the front lines, Mr Nasrallah said. The rebels took charge of protecting nearby refugee camps.

"We facilitated this," he said. "We are ready to work with the Lebanese state and the Syrian government on the withdrawal" of the rebel faction to Syria.

Since the onset of the Syrian conflict, nearly 1.5 million refugees have poured into Lebanon — around a quarter of its population — where most languish in severe poverty. Several thousand refugees live in makeshift camps east of Arsal.

The Lebanese army has been helping with the passage of refugees fleeing the recent clashes at the border, with UN supervision, according to a security source.

The International Rescue Committee said around 390 people, mostly Syrian women and children, escaped to Arsal so far, many of them visibly shaken.

Mr Nasrallah said fighters were proceeding cautiously because of the proximity of the refugee camps. The border offensive had been in the works for months and Hizbollah asked the Syrian army to help after deciding to launch the battle, he said.

Hezbollah's role in the Syrian conflict has drawn criticism from its Lebanese political opponents, including Sunni leader and prime minister Saad Hariri.

During a state visit by Mr Hariri this week, US president Donald Trump called Hizbollah a threat to Lebanon from within and a "menace" to the region.

Mr Nasrallah said on Wednesday he would not respond to Mr Trump's comments in order "not to embarrass" the official Lebanese delegation to Washington.