Lebanon: Fate of IS-held soldiers unclear as ceasefire declared in border operations

Lebanon: Fate of IS-held soldiers unclear as ceasefire declared in border operations
The fate of Lebanese servicemen held hostage by the Islamic State group remains unclear as Lebanon's military announces a pause in the battle against the militants along the Syrian border
4 min read
27 August, 2017
Funeral of Lebanese soldier killed in the anti-IS offensive last week [Getty file photo]
The fate of Lebanese servicemen held hostage by the Islamic State group remains unclear as Lebanon's military announced a ceasefire in its week-old battle against the militants along the Syrian border.

The Lebanese army announced that the ceasefire took effect at 7am (5am BST). The Lebanese army has said it will allow for negotiations with the militants over the nine Lebanese soldiers captured three years ago, but reports suggest some or all of them may already be dead. 

Authorities in Lebanon said their fate will be known later on Sunday. Families of the soldiers have flocked to downtown Beirut to a sit-in site awaiting the news, said The New Arab's correspondent.

The Syrian army and Lebanon's Hizballah militant group, which are waging a separate campaign on the other side of the border, also announced a cease-fire.

The Central Military Media - an outlet run jointly by Hizballah and the Syrian regime military - said the Sunday ceasefire will pave the way for a comprehensive agreement to end the fight against IS in the area.

A security source told Reuters on Sunday that Hizballah entered an area in western Qalamoun to confirm if the captive Lebanese soldiers were buried there.

Under the first stage of the ceasefire deal, Hizballah forces were excavating the area to look for remains thought to belong to some of the soldiers, said an official in the military alliance fighting in support of the Damascus regime.

Islamic State group militants have asked Hizballah and the Syrian army to let them withdraw from the enclave to Syria's Deir az-Zor province, the official had said.

The battle began a week ago when the Lebanese army, and Hizballah together with Syrian regime forces, launched separate but simultaneous assaults.

The Lebanese army has said it is not coordinating its attack with the Syrian army or Hizballah, which Washington classifies as a terrorist group.

The US-backed Lebanese military denies it is coordinating with the Syrian army. Hizballah has been fighting alongside the Syrian forces since 2013.

Both offensives have advanced towards the border from opposite sides. Lebanon and Shia Hizballah each said they have made gains against the militants, driving them back into a smaller zone in the arid hills on the border.

The IS enclave in the barren mountains marks the last militant foothold along the Syria-Lebanon frontier.

North-east Lebanon saw one of the worst spillovers of Syria's war into Lebanon in 2014, when IS and other militants briefly overran the border town of Arsal, capturing the Lebanese servicemen.

Some of them held by the Syria's al-Qaeda off-shoot - known at the time as al-Nusra Front - were released but IS-held soldiers remain unaccounted for.

Nusra militants and a Syrian rebel group withdrew from Lebanon's border region earlier this month. They departed for insurgent territory in Syria after offensives by Hizballah and the Syrian regime.

Hizballah has played a key role in fighting Sunni militants along the border during Syria's six-year war and has sent thousands of fighters to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In a speech last week, Hizballah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said the Iran-backed group had begun talks with Islamic State group on a truce.

If Lebanon wanted to negotiate for IS to evacuate its territory, he said, the Syrian government would be ready to accept any formal request from Beirut.

But any coordination between the Lebanese army and either the Syrian army or Hizballah would be politically sensitive in Lebanon and could jeopardise the sizeable US military aid the country receives.

Hizballah and its allies have been pressing the Lebanese state to normalise relations with Damascus, testing Lebanon's official policy of neutrality towards the conflict next door.

A Western diplomat praised the Lebanese army's performance in the border battle in "a risky and complex operation" and said it would have been "simply unimaginable" a decade ago.

"We see no evidence of substantive cooperation (between the army and Hizballah)," the diplomat added.

But a pro-Damascus official and a source familiar with the talks told Reuters there has been communication between Hizballah and the Lebanese army over the ceasefires and the negotiations with IS.