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Sides exchange bodies after truce on Lebanon-Syria border

Hezbollah had cornered rival fighters in a small pocket of territory when it announced the truce
Hezbollah fighters sitting in all-terrain-vehicles in a mountainous area around the Lebanese town of Arsal along the border with Syria during a media tour on 29 July (AFP)

Lebanon's Hezbollah movement and Sunni militants on Sunday started exchanging the bodies of fighters as part of a ceasefire deal for the restive Syria-Lebanon border.

The truce, announced by the movement and confirmed by Lebanon's General Security agency on Thursday, ended six days of a Hezbollah-led assault on al-Qaeda's former Syrian branch in the mountainous Jurud Arsal border region.

Hezbollah's "War Media" outlet reported on Sunday that the "first phase of the deal" had begun.

"The bodies of nine al-Nusra fighters will be handed over to the Lebanese General Security in exchange for the remains of five Hezbollah fighters who died in the Jurud battles," the outlet said.

It said the bodies of the Syrian militants had been transported to a hospital for medical examinations.

Their remains are then expected to be transported to Syria's northwestern province of Idlib.

Meanwhile, about 8,000 people have registered to leave the Lebanese border region near Arsal for a rebel-held area of Syria as part of the ceasefire between Hezbollah and the Nusra Front, a security source in Lebanon said on Sunday.

The local ceasefire will also involve the departure of all Nusra militants from the area around Arsal along with any civilians living in the area's refugee camps who wish to leave with them.

Al-Nusra Front was al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria until mid-2016 when it broke off ties, before going on to found a new extremist-led alliance called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which now controls large swathes of Idlib. 

Hezbollah launched its offensive on Jurud Arsal - a barren border area used by militants as a hideout for several years - on 21 July.

The group took media outlets on several guided tours of the territory it had secured, including an underground base allegedly used by militants.

Military-style vests were piled in one corner near stacked sandbags. Papers were strewn all over the carpeted floor in one room, and crates of ammunition were stored in another. 

Hezbollah had cornered rival fighters in a small pocket of territory when it announced the truce. 

Head of Lebanon's General Security agency Major General Ibrahim Abbas later confirmed the deal, which he said would also see the transfer "within days" of Syrian fighters and refugees to Idlib province with the help of Lebanon's Red Cross.

Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees live in the town of Arsal, adjacent to the border region, while an unknown number are also thought to have taken shelter in the surrounding mountains.

More than one million Syrians are registered with the United Nations as refugees in Lebanon, a country of just four million people.

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