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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Rebels and refugees leave Lebanon enclave for Syria

About 300 rebels from a group called Saraya Ahl Al Sham, along with about 3,000 refugees, are to leave Lebanon under a deal that followed an assault by Hizbollah on militant positions last month

A Hizbollah fighter holds his weapon in Jroud Arsal, near the Syrian-Lebanese border on August 13, 2017. Ali Hashisho / Reuters
A Hizbollah fighter holds his weapon in Jroud Arsal, near the Syrian-Lebanese border on August 13, 2017. Ali Hashisho / Reuters

The evacuation of a group of Syrian rebels and refugees from a border enclave in Lebanon back into Syrian territory started on Monday, Hizbollah-affiliated Al Manar TV reported.

About 300 rebels from a group called Saraya Ahl Al Sham, along with about 3,000 refugees, are to leave Lebanon under a deal that followed an assault by Hizbollah on militant positions last month.

A convoy of 40 buses had left for the Syrian border, Al Manar said.

Their departure will leave an ISIL enclave as the last militant stronghold straddling the border near the Lebanese town of Arsal, which is home to tens of thousands of refugees.

The transfer, and another one early this month of Jabhat Fatah Al Sham fighters and refugees, echoes deals struck within Syria in which Damascus has shuttled rebels and civilians to opposition areas.

On Friday, the Lebanese security official overseeing the arrangements, General Abbas Ibrahim, said a group of civilians would go to Assal Al Ward, an area just across the border from Arsal and held by the Syrian government.

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The fighters and their families will go to another part of Syria which he did not identify. A military media unit run by Hizbollah last week said they would go to the rebel-held town of Al Ruhaiba in the Eastern Qalamoun region.

Hizbollah has played a big battlefield role in Syria on the side of president Bashar Al Assad.

Last month, the Shiite organisation defeated rebels in insurgent enclaves near the Syrian border in Lebanon and forced Fatah Al Sham, Al Qaeda's former Syrian affiliate, to leave. About 7,000 refugees departed with the extremist group for a rebel-held part of north-west Syria.

The Lebanese army is expected to launch an assault on ISIL pocket in the same area soon.

An assault on ISIL would end a period of several years in which armed groups from inside Syria have held positions in the hills around Arsal, in what has been the most serious spillover of the war into Lebanon.

More than 1 million Syrian refugees are sheltering in Lebanon, about a quarter of the country's total population. Hizbollah has stepped up calls for the Lebanese government to engage directly with Damascus over the return of refugees to Syria.

Syria's opposition has criticised previous evacuations of civilians under ceasefire deals as amounting to the forced transfer of populations, something Damascus denies.

The growing number of evacuation deals for fighters and civilians from besieged rebel areas inside Syria over the past year has helped Mr Al Assad to solidify his hold in several parts of the country.

Lebanon's General Security, the government agency that negotiated Monday's transfer, said all of the civilians returning were doing so voluntarily.