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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Sides exchange bodies after truce on Lebanon-Syria border

Lebanon's Hizbollah movement and jihadist militants 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 on Thursday, ended six days of a Hizbollah-led assault on Al Qaeda's former Syrian branch in the mountainous Jurud Arsal border region.

Hizbollah's "War Media" outlet reported that the "first phase of the deal" took place on Sunday.

"The bodies of nine [Jabhat] Al Nusra fighters were exchanged for the remains of five Hizbollah fighters who died in the Jurud battles," it said.

A convoy of buses was deployed on Monday to transport to Syria 9,000 militants and their families, who have been in eastern Lebanon since the war broke out in Syria in 2011.

In exchange, an undetermined number of Hizbollah prisoners would be freed.

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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.

Jabhat Al Nusra 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, which now controls large swathes of Idlib.

Hizbollah 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.

Hizbollah had cornered rival fighters in a small pocket of territory when it announced the truce.

Head of Lebanon's General Security agency Maj Gen 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 UN as refugees in Lebanon, a country of just four million people.