BEIRUT: Around 5,000 Syrian nationals, including a few hundred militants and their families, are expected to leave Lebanon for Syria within the coming 48 hours as part of an exchange deal with Hezbollah, a security source told The Daily Star.
The deal, which ended a seven-day confrontation on Lebanon's northeastern border, will include the return of eight Hezbollah fighters captured by militants, the source said.
Jabhat Fatah al-Sham had previously taken five Hezbollah fighters captive in Syria's Aleppo. Three other fighters were held on the outskirts of Lebanon’s northeastern border town of Arsal after losing their way and ending up in an area controlled by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.
The source added that negotiations over the three newly-captured Hezbollah members as well as logistical obstacles, namely providing a sufficient number of buses, were delaying the exchange.
The Lebanese Red Cross on Saturday afternoon said on Twitter that its teams would "be handling the logistics and escort of the [departing Syrian] convoy from the outskirts of Arsal to the Syrian border," upon the request of the Directorate of General Security.
Hezbollah had sustained an offensive against positions held by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham – the militant group formerly known as the Nusra Front – on the outskirts of Arsal and of the adjacent town of Flita in Syria for a week since Friday July 21.
Hezbollah forces succeeded in capturing the rugged mountainous area from the militant group, with the battle culminating Thursday in a cease-fire.
The source said that the battles had left 27 Hezbollah fighters and approximately 150 Jabhat Fatah al-Sham militants dead, according to the most recent tally of casualties.
Hezbollah’s role in the battle was welcomed by several local parties while a number of other parties criticized what they saw as a violation of state sovereignty, saying they would have preferred to see the Lebanese Army conducting the offensive against extremist groups.
Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt took to Twitter Saturday to comment on the offensive. "Awaiting the Army to complete the Arsal outskirts offensive [in Ras Baalbeck], I salute Hezbollah martyrs who died during the first stage of the mission [against militants].”
A second offensive is expected to be launched against Daesh (ISIS) militants holed up to the north of Arsal, in the mountains of Ras Baalbeck. Many political parties have voiced support for the Army to conduct the operation.
Former Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, however, said Saturday he “feared the Army would be lured to start a battle against Daesh before [the threat on] Arsal’s outskirts has ended.”
Speaking to Voice of Lebanon radio (93.3), Charbel called for coordination between the Syrian and Lebanese militaries “in order for us to protect our borders.”
Charbel said that militants should be attacked from both the Lebanese and Syrian sides of the border, in order to mitigate their threat.
“If a battle against Daesh starts and ends from one side only, the danger will not be eradicated,” he said.
The former minister praised Hezbollah’s offensive. “What Hezbollah has done is an act that benefits all the Lebanese, from all sects, particularly in the Arsal area,” he said.