A convoy of more than 100 buses has begun entering rebel territory under a ceasefire deal agreed last week
The evacuation of the last rebel foothold on the Lebanese border started on Thursday as a convoy of more than 100 buses carrying Syrian refugees and fighters began crossing into rebel-controlled Idlib province.
About 7,000 Syrians, including fighters from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a rebel group formerly known as Nusra front, left the Arsal district on the border between Lebanon and Syria as part of a ceasefire deal that will also involve the handover of captured fighters from the Lebanese Hezbollah movement.
The convoy arrived at Saan in Hama province on Thursday, where they began to cross frontlines from government territory, a Hezbollah military media unit reported. The buses left Arsal on Wednesday evening.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the arrival of the convoy and that preparations had begun to transfer them to rebel territory.
Once some buses have crossed, five Hezbollah captives will be handed over by rebels at the same location, the Hezbollah media unit said.
The transfer is the largest formal repatriation of refugees to Syria since the conflict began in 2011, and has was carried out without the involvement of international aid groups leading to concerns about the refugees’ welfare.
The Syrian rebels had capture the territory in the mountainous area straddling both sides of the border and made use of the rugged terrain to launch attacks on the Lebanese army.
Over 40,000 refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict have also collected in Arsal in squalid camps.
The Shia Hezbollah, which receives backing from regional power Iran, has been engaged in an offensives against Nusra front and other rebel groups in the mountainous region of Jroud Arsal on the Lebanon/Syrian border.
The Nusra front is the former affiliate of Al-Qaeda in Syria.
Syrian men carry their bags near a bus in Jroud Arsal, Lebanon August 2, 2017. (Reuters)
Militants loose last foothold in border region
The offensive which resulted in defeat for rebel groups involved joint actions with the Syrian army on both sides of the border, and lead to the ceasefire deal which took effect last week.
The evacuation sees Nusra Front and other Sunni militants lose their last foothold on the border area between Lebanon and Syria and the concentration of rebel forces in ever smaller areas.
The refugees and fighters arriving in Idlib will not find a respite from the conflict. The region, which is largely controlled by Nusra front, is regularly the site of clashes between rebels and the Syrian government forces of President Bashar al-Assad and the target of airstrikes by the Russian Airforce.
Russian and Hezbollah are important allies of the regime of President Assad in its fight against rebel groups. Russia has been engaged in combat operations against rebel groups since 2015.
Hezbollah fighters on Thursday moved into the areas that Nusra abandoned under the ceasefire, the media unit said.
The transfer of militants along with large numbers of refugees has echoed deals struck within Syria in which Damascus has shuttled rebels and civilians to Idlib and other opposition areas.
Such evacuations have helped President Bashar al-Assad recapture several rebel bastions over the past year and are criticised by the opposition as amounting to the forced transfer of populations seen as sympathetic to the opposition.