Lebanon army declares pause in offensive against IS on Syria border

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Ceasefire called to help facilitate negotiations for release of troops captured during IS raid on Arsal in 2014

Lebanese army say missing troops its 'top concern' in its offensive against IS (AFP)
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Monday 28 August 2017 8:36 UTC
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The Lebanese army has announced a pause in fighting with Islamic State (IS) group militants to help facilitate hostage negotiations for security personnel IS took prisoner in 2014. 

The armed forces launched their campaign against IS militants entrenched in the mountainous Jurud Ras Baalbek and Jurud al-Qaa areas on Lebanon's eastern border in mid-August.

"The army command announces a ceasefire beginning at 7am (04:00 GMT) to make way for the last phase of negotiations linked to the fate of the kidnapped soldiers," the army said in a statement on Sunday.

Nine prisoners are believed still to be held by IS after militants overran the Lebanese border town of Arsal in August 2014 and kidnapped 30 soldiers and police.

Four were killed by their captors and a fifth died of his wounds, while 16 were released in a prisoner swap in December 2015.

The army has said the remaining missing personnel were its "top concern" in its offensive against an estimated 600 IS militants in the rugged border region.

"There has been no timeframe set" for the truce, an army source told AFP.

"The negotiations are ongoing for IS to withdraw and provide information on the fate of the troops," the source said.

Six Lebanese army soldiers have been killed since 19 August.

Fraught negotiations

Lebanese militant group Hezbollah launched its own simultaneous attack against IS from the Syrian side of the border in an area known as west Qalamun.

Hezbollah's War Media channel also announced a freeze in fighting on Sunday.

It said the unilateral pause was "in the framework of a comprehensive agreement to end the battle in west Qalamun against Daesh [IS]".

Lebanon's army insisted it was not coordinating its assault with Hezbollah.

IS and the then al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front militants who attacked Arsal in 2014 withdrew soon afterwards under a truce deal, but took the 30 hostages from Lebanon's security forces with them.

Al-Nusra and IS each executed two of their hostages, and a fifth died of wounds sustained during the fighting in Arsal.

After months of negotiations, al-Nusra handed over 16 of the soldiers and police in December 2015 in exchange for the release of prisoners from Lebanese jails and delivery of aid.

The head of Lebanon's General Security body, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, oversaw the release efforts in 2015. He is also expected to be behind negotiation efforts for the nine soldiers still in IS hands.

The army's operation comes after Hezbollah carried out its own six-day campaign in July further south on the border area against al-Nusra, now known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham after breaking off ties with IS last year. 

That offensive ended with a ceasefire under which 8,000 refugees and IS militants were transported to northwestern Syria in return for the release of five captured Hezbollah fighters.