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Islamic State evacuation convoy reaches Syria's Deir Ezzor

IS militants reportedly reach Deir Ezzor province after releasing Hezbollah prisoner
Damascus and Hezbollah allowed almost 300 lightly armed militants and 300 relatives to leave Syria-Lebanon border in relocation deal (Reuters)
By Reuters

Buses carrying evacuated Islamic State (IS) group militants reached Syria's Deir Ezzor on Wednesday, after releasing a Hezbollah prisoner, a commander in the pro-Damascus alliance told Reuters.

Damascus and Hezbollah allowed almost 300 lightly armed militants and 300 relatives to leave the Syria-Lebanon border in a surrender deal, after an offensive there last month.

The transfer marked the first time IS publicly agreed to such an evacuation from territory it held.

A US-led coalition had stopped the 17 buses from reaching Deir Ezzor for weeks and the convoy split in two. It was not immediately clear if all the buses arrived in IS territory in the eastern Syrian province on Wednesday.

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"The deal has been completed," said the commander in the alliance fighting with the Damascus government.

The buses took a route between the town of al-Sukhna and Deir Ezzor, a main road that the Syrian army and allied forces captured in recent days, the commander said.

Along the route, the combatants swapped the evacuees for a Hezbollah prisoner who had been in IS captivity, the non-Syrian commander added.

Under the evacuation deal in August, IS militants left their border foothold after a week-long battle in return for safe passage to Deir Ezzor province in Syria.

Iran-backed Hezbollah has played a major role in fighting Sunni militants along the border. Since early in the six-year Syrian conflict, it has sent thousands of fighters to support President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Lebanon's Shia Hezbollah retrieved the remains of some of its forces killed in Syria as part of the swap, and was to get back one of its fighters that IS held captive.

The deal included recovering the bodies of nine Lebanese soldiers that IS captured in 2014.

The transfer ended any rebel presence from the Syrian war on the frontier, where the Lebanese army also fought the militants in a separate offensive on its side.

But the US-led coalition against IS blocked the convoy from entering IS territory in east Syria, near the border with Iraq, by cratering roads and destroying bridges.

The convoy split in two, with 11 buses remaining in the open desert and others retreating into government territory.

Last week, the US coalition said its surveillance aircraft moved away from the buses in the no-man's land after pro-Syrian government forces "advanced past" the convoy. Damascus was responsible for the evacuees, it said.

The Syrian army and its allies reached Deir Ezzor city, breaking an IS siege of an enclave there that had lasted three years.

US-backed Syrian militias have also launched a separate assault in another part of Deir Ezzor province, which has become IS's last major foothold in Syria.

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