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US-led strike in Syria blocks ISIS evacuees

A US-led coalition carried out an air strike today to block ISIS militants evacuated from Lebanon from reaching eastern Syria, the group’s spokesman confirmed.

Hundreds of ISIS, or Islamic State, fighters and civilians were evacuated Monday from the border region between Lebanon and Syria under a ceasefire deal and were headed to a town near Syria’s eastern frontier with Iraq controlled by ISIS.

‘To prevent the convoy from moving further east, we cratered the road and destroyed a small bridge,’ said coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon, without providing further details on the exact location.

A convoy carrying members of the Islamic State group and their families is seen in Syria’s Qalamoun region on August 28, 2017 as they are transported to the eastern province of Deir Ezzor

‘IS is a global threat; relocating terrorists from one place to another for someone else to deal with is not a lasting solution,’ he added.

The evacuation deal was negotiated between ISIS and powerful Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, which has intervened in the war in neighboring Syria to prop up the Damascus government.

Hezbollah had fought a week-long offensive against Islamic State on the Syrian side of the border with Lebanon, coinciding with a simultaneous assault by Lebanese troops on their side of the frontier.

The battles ended Sunday with the announcement of a deal that would see ISIS forces bussed hundreds of miles from Syria’s western border with Lebanon to its eastern frontier with Iraq.

Jihadists and civilians, including children, left the border region two days ago, but on Wednesday their buses were still held up at the entrance to Deir Ezzor province.

‘We know and understand that there are civilians’ aboard the buses, Dillon said. 

‘If we are able to strike them without harming civilians, then we will do so,’ he said, adding that the coalition was monitoring the convoy’s movement in real time.

Asked whether the presence of civilians had prompted the coalition to bomb the road instead of the convoy itself, Dillon said that would be ‘consistent’ with protocol.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that there was a delay in the buses reaching Deir Ezzor province but did not specify why.

Syrian military sources reached by AFP declined to comment.

The evacuation agreement had sparked a furious reaction from the United States, which considers Hezbollah to be a “terrorist” organisation.

“Irreconcilable #ISIS terrorists should be killed on the battlefield, not bused across #Syria to the Iraqi border without #Iraq’s consent,” US presidential envoy to the anti-IS coalition Brett McGurk said Wednesday.

“Our @coalition will help ensure that these terrorists can never enter #Iraq or escape from what remains of their dwindling ‘caliphate’,” he wrote on Twitter.

It was also met with outrage in Iraq, with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi describing it as “unacceptable” and an “insult to the Iraqi people”.

Iraqi forces, who reseized second city Mosul from IS in July after a nine-month battle, are fighting the last pocket of jihadists in the northern province of Nineveh.

The deal was even controversial in Lebanon, where opponents were angry that IS fighters were travelling “on air-conditioned buses” after having been suspected of killing Lebanese troops.

On Wednesday, Lebanon’s president and the chief of the army hailed the “victory” scored against IS in the campaign.

“Today, we are announcing Lebanon’s victory against terrorism. I dedicate this victory to all Lebanese, who can be proud of their army,” President Michel Aoun said at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut.

After Sunday’s deal, IS fighters who had surrendered led Lebanese authorities to human remains believed to belong to Lebanese soldiers kidnapped by IS in 2014.

The Lebanese army had called the fate of the soldiers a “top concern” in its week-long offensive against IS.


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