Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah met with Assad over IS convoy

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Nasrallah says he met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus to request the evacuation of IS militants and their families

Convoy of Islamic State militants and their families begins evacuation of Lebanon-Syria border zone in Qalamoun, Syria (Reuters)
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Friday 1 September 2017 6:14 UTC
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Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Thursday he had travelled to Damascus to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to request the evacuation of Islamic State (IS) group militants from their enclave on the Syria-Lebanon border.

"I personally went to Damascus" to see President Bashar al-Assad, Nasrallah told thousands of his supporters in a televised speech.

Nasrallah, 57, has only made rare public appearances since the 2006 war against his arch-foe Israel. As a figure on Israel's most wanted list, he said in 2014 that he often changed his place of residence in the utmost secrecy.

The evacuation convoy left the border area late on Monday to take about 600 IS militants and their family members to territory the group controls in eastern Syria, but it was blocked from entering IS areas on Wednesday by US-led air strikes.

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US Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, the commander of US-led forces fighting IS, told a Pentagon briefing that the convoy had turned back into Syrian government territory.

"When I walked into this conference about an hour ago, the buses were on the move. They had turned and had driven back into regime-held areas," he told reporters via a video teleconference from Baghdad.

"We haven't struck the convoy. But we have struck every ISIS fighter and/or vehicle that has tried to approach that convoy. And we'll continue to do that," he said.

Hezbollah's leader, a close ally of Assad during Syria's six-year civil war, has not publicly discussed going to Damascus for a long time and his comments about the evacuation followed criticism of the deal.

Nasrallah said he had asked Assad to approve the deal for IS to leave for eastern Syria in order to discover the fate of Lebanese soldiers captured by the militants, and that Assad said he was embarrassed by the deal but agreed.

The evacuation was sharply criticised by Iraq, which is also fighting IS and said it was "unacceptable" to ship militants to Syrian territory near its borders.

Nasrallah said the United States threatened to stop arms supplies to the Lebanese army if it went ahead with the assault.

The offensive against the IS pocket had been initially delayed for political reasons, he added, without elaborating.

The army offensive last week that led to IS leaving its enclave only took place after Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a Nasrallah ally, was elected last year and was able to take a "sovereign decision" to attack the enclave, Nasrallah said.

The US is a major supplier of arms to Lebanon but regards Hezbollah, which carried out an earlier offensive on an adjacent militant enclave, as a terrorist organisation. The Lebanese army says it did not coordinate with Hezbollah in its assault on IS or other military activities.