U.S.-led jets strike in Syria to block Islamic State evacuation deal

BEIRUT (Reuters) – U.S.-led warplanes on Wednesday blocked a convoy of Islamic State fighters and their families from reaching territory the group holds in east Syria and struck some of their comrades traveling to meet them, a coalition spokesman said.

The strikes were aimed at stopping an evacuation deal for Islamic State fighters to leave their enclave on the Lebanon-Syria border for areas they hold in eastern Syria, arranged by the Lebanese Hezbollah group and the Syrian army.

It was part of a ceasefire agreed after offensives last week by the Lebanese army on one front, and the Syrian army and Hezbollah on another, that pushed Islamic State back into a small part of its enclave straddling the frontier.

The deal has been criticized by the coalition and by Iraq, whose army is also fighting against Islamic State in areas contiguous with the eastern Syria region to which the convoy was headed.

The convoy, carrying 308 militants and 331 civilians according to Hezbollah, is now effectively stranded, unable to move forward into Islamic State territory.

It shows how easily such evacuations to other areas, which the Syrian government has increasingly used to push rebel pockets to surrender, can be derailed in a conflict with many sides.

Islamic State is on the back foot in both Syria and Iraq, losing swathes of its territory and its most important towns and cities after taking advantage of chaos including the six-year civil war in Syria to win ground.

In Syria, the U.S.-led coalition is backing an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias in the north which are assaulting the jihadist group’s former de facto capital of Raqqa.

The Russian-backed Syrian army and allied Shi’ite militia from Iraq and Lebanon including Hezbollah have this year seized most of the central desert from the group, and are advancing eastwards to relieve the army’s besieged enclave in Deir al-Zor.

The coalition strikes to block the convoy moving into Islamic State territory took place east of Humeima, near the edge of land held by the Syrian government, coalition spokesman Ryan Dillon told Reuters.

“We did crater the road and destroyed a small bridge to prevent this convoy from moving further east,” Dillon told Reuters by phone.

He later said the coalition had struck vehicles containing Islamic State fighters that were heading to that area from deeper inside the territory they control to the east.

He did not know if the evacuation convoy, which contains buses of fighters and their…

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