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Lebanon prisoner swap opens way for transfer of thousands to Syria

Transfer of some 10,000 Syrian militants, families and other refugees from Lebanon into rebel-held Syria is now expected to begin
Hezbollah took most of Arsal, a mountainous area straddling the Syria-Lebanon border, last week (AFP)

Three recently captured fighters from Lebanon's Hezbollah group were released by Syria's former al-Qaeda affiliate early on Wednesday in exchange for three individuals held by Lebanon, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of Lebanon's General Security, told Reuters.

The completed exchange means a delayed transfer of around 10,000 Syrian militants, their families and other refugees by bus from Lebanon into rebel-held Syria is now expected to begin Wednesday morning, Ibrahim said.

The transfer was agreed under a ceasefire deal between Hezbollah and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) last week but was delayed by two days while negotiations over the captive exchange took place.

Ibrahim said 120 militants carrying personal weapons would be among the thousands of Syrians set to leave for Syria's rebel-held Idlib province on Wednesday.

Another five captive Hezbollah fighters would then be released once the first convoy reaches its destination in Syria, Ibrahim said.

Ibrahim told Reuters Lebanese authorities had received the three Hezbollah fighters and had handed over three individuals detained in Lebanon requested by JFS just before 1am Beirut time (2200 GMT).

Two of the individuals handed to JFS by Beirut were prisoners and one had finished his prison term.

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Last week, Lebanese militia Hezbollah took most of a mountainous area straddling the Syria-Lebanon border, called Jroud Arsal, in a joint offensive with the Syrian army to drive JFS militants from the area.

The Lebanese army, which receives considerable US and British military support, did not take an active part in the Jroud Arsal operation, but rather had set up defensive positions around the town of Arsal.

Hezbollah supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his country's more than six-year-old conflict.

Hezbollah's role in Syria's conflict has been criticised by its Lebanese political opponents, including Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri. Hariri has said refugee returns from Lebanon to Syria should be coordinated only through the United Nations.