BEIRUT (AP) — More than a hundred buses carrying thousands of al-Qaida-linked fighters and Syrian refugees drove down a dirt road from Lebanon into Syria on Wednesday, in what was the last phase of an exchange deal between Syria’s al-Qaida branch and Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group.
The departure of al-Qaida fighters from the Lebanon-Syria border comes three years to the day its fighters stormed the Lebanese border town of Arsal and captured two dozen soldiers, killing some in captivity and releasing others. The group’s presence in Lebanon has left scores of people dead.
More than 7,000 Syrian refugees and gunmen, including a top al-Qaida operative in Syria known as Abu Malek al-Talli, were aboard the 113 buses the left Lebanon’s Arsal region toward the Syrian border village of Fleeta, according to the government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media.
The militants and civilians final destination will be the jihadi-held part of northwestern Syria, according to an agreement between Lebanon, Syria, Hezbollah, and Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate. That group is known as the Hay’at Tahrir al Sham militant alliance — Arabic for the Levant Liberation Committee — or HTS.
“The Nusra Front was defeated in Lebanon,” said the announcer of Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV, using the old name of al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria.
The long line of buses drove through the partially paved mountain road between the two countries as Hezbollah fighters in beige uniforms and carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles watched them drive by. Masked gunmen could be seen inside the buses on the road that was decorated with Lebanese flags and yellow Hezbollah banners.
Hezbollah combatants have been fighting along Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces since 2013, and the Iran-backed group is still deeply involved in Syria’s civil war, now in its seventh year.
The evacuation deal followed a military offensive by Hezbollah fighters and Syrian troops during which they captured border areas between the two countries and left hundreds of al-Qaida fighters besieged in a small rugged mountainous area.
The fighting ended with a cease-fire on July 27 for negotiations to allow refugees, fighters, and family members leave to Syria’s northwest Idlib province and the central Qalamoun region.
The three Hezbollah fighters were released shortly after midnight Wednesday by HTS in return for the release of three al-Qaida fighters who were held in Lebanon.
As part of the deal, the two groups on Sunday exchanged the…