An exchange of prisoners between the Lebanese Hezbollah militia and the Nusra Front began on Wednesday with four detainees held by the Lebanese security forces being handed over for three members of the militia.
The exchange deal comes after days of fighting between Hezbollah militias and militants of the Nusra Front in the border area between Lebanon and Syria, which includes Arsal on the Lebanese side and the Qalamun Mountains on the Syrian side.
Under a local ceasefire between the Lebanese Shiiite group and the Sunni militants, the transfer of around 10,000 Syrian militants, their families and other refugees by bus from Lebanon into rebel-held Syria is expected to begin on Wednesday morning, Abbas Ibrahim, head of Lebanon’s General Security, told Reuters.
The transfer was agreed under a ceasefire deal between Hezbollah and Nusra last week but 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 that Lebanese authorities had received the three Hezbollah fighters and had handed over three individuals detained in Lebanon requested by the Nusra Front just before 1 am Beirut time (2200 GMT).
Two of the individuals handed to Nusra Front by Beirut were prisoners and one had finished his prison term.
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 Nusra Front 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, setting 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 criticized by its Lebanese political opponents, including Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri. Hariri has previously said refugee returns from Lebanon to Syria should be coordinated only through the United Nations.
On Wednesday Ibrahim said Hariri had asked Abbas to make a success of this deal, local media reported.
Nusra Front was al-Qaeda's Syria branch until it severed ties and rebranded last year. It now spearheads the Tahrir al-Sham Islamist alliance in the Syrian war.