The Lebanese army and Hezbollah fighters have extended their campaign into eastern Lebanon’s Ras Baalbeck, with a new offensive against IS after a ceasefire with al-Qaeda-linked militants.
Hezbollah and the Lebanese army have extended their offensive against militant groups in the east of the country to Islamic State group-held areas of the Ras Baalbek region.
Lebanese artillery pounded IS positions near al-Qaa, a Christian majority town close to the Syria border, on Friday morning.
Elite troops were sent to the area in anticipation of an attempted retreat by the militants into Lebanon’s interior.
It also prepares the Lebanese military for joining forces with Hezbollah as part of the Shia militia’s offensive against rebels and militants in eastern Lebanon and the other side of the border.
The Lebanese military initially planned to play a defensive role in the operation guarding Arsal from infiltration. Hezbollah would lead the assault on al-Qaeda-linked fighters and IS militants in the area.
Hezbollah announced a ceasefire with the al-Qaeda-linked faction – known as al-Nusra Front or Fatah al-Sham – which would move the campaign on to IS-held territory.
Activists told The New Arab that Fatah al-Sham militants will leave Lebanon for Syria’s Idlib province, which was recently taken over by an al-Qaeda-led coalition.
“The agreement between Hezbollah and the Fatah al-Sham organisation will see the transfer of fighters [and] civilians – who want to in the exchange – for the release of five Hezbollah prisoners held by the group,” said Ali Saleh, a Syrian activist living in Arsal.
Despite initial fears, Syrian refugees will not be forced to leave Arsal but there are no guarantees from international parties.
“The only guarantee is the Lebanese Red Cross and the [fate of the Hezbollah] captives. A statistical survey of the names of those wishing to go is now recorded,” he said.
Lebanon’s General Security agency chief Major General Ibrahim Abbas, who helped broker the agreement, confirmed the deal on Thursday afternoon.
It follows a televised speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah who said his fighters had paid a heavy price in the campaign so far.
Nasrallah claimed the Shia group would hand over territory they have gained in the offensive to the Lebanese military.
“The Lebanese army’s approach foiled the ambitions of those who sought to exploit the situation in Arsal and were betting on stirring sedition. Despite the difficult battle, the town of Arsal remained safe thanks to the army,” Nasrallah told supporters.
“Hezbollah does not want for Arsal and its residents anything but welfare, security, safety and dignity, and when the battle ends, we’re ready – if the army command asks – to hand it over all of the recaptured posts and territory.”
He added that IS would have come to Fatah al-Sham’s aid had al-Qaeda-linked fighters sworn allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
“[IS] would have helped al-Nusra if the latter offered a pledge of allegiance to it, but this would have been very insulting for al-Nusra,” Nasrallah claimed.
Nasrallah admitted that the Iranian-backed militia had worked with the Syrian regime in the campaign with fighter planes bombing rebel-held Qalamoun.
“There was a joint battle along with the Syrian army – we fought side by side, and we both offered martyrs and wounded until the whole area was liberated, and in the Syrian territories there are no more al-Nusra elements,” Nasrallah said.
“On the Lebanese side, what the Lebanese army did in Arsal and its outskirts was essential for this victory, as it targeted militants there and protected the people and refugee camps.”
Nasrallah assured Syrian refugees they would be unharmed, following fears of attacks on the mostly Sunni population by Hezbollah fighters.
This follows the deaths of at least four Syrian refugees in army detention, with images showing visible “torture marks” on their bodies, activists said.