Syrian evacuation under way at Lebanon-Syria border

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Nearly 9000 Syrian rebel fighters and their families to be evacuated from Lebanon border

They were bussed out of the restive border area between Lebanon and Syria as part of a ceasefire deal between Lebanon's Shiite movement Hezbollah and fighters from Al-Qaeda's former Syrian branch. It now spearheads the Tahrir Al Sham alliance in the Syrian civil war. Last week, HTS seized the city of Idlib, as well as two border crossings with Turkey, following days of fighting with Ahrar al-Sham - a rival rebel group.

"The Nusra Front was defeated in Lebanon", Hezbollah's al-Manar television announced in the Lebanese capital, using an old name for al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria.

Lebanon's National News Agency reported that the released Hezbollah fighters had arrived in the Lebanese town of Al-Labweh and received a "festive welcome" including "fireworks, celebratory gunfire, and throwing rice". Masked gunmen could be seen inside the buses on the road that was decorated with Lebanese flags and yellow Hezbollah banners.

The Jroud Arsal operation has highlighted the major role of Hezbollah in fighting militants along the frontier during Syria's six-year war, sending thousands of combatants to support Assad's government.

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The evacuation of the last rebel foothold on the Lebanese border started on Thursday as a convoy of more than 100 buses carrying Syrian refugees and fighters began crossing into rebel-controlled Idlib province.

The second stage of the deal is the evacuation of all remaining Nusra militants and their families from Arsal toward rebel-held areas in Syria's northwestern province of Idlib.

Russian and Hezbollah are important allies of the regime of President Assad in its fight against rebel groups. Hezbollah captives, however, are expected to be released after buses carrying the militants and other civilians cross over Hama countryside making way towards Idlib. The tiny Arab country is home to about 1.2 million Syrian refugees, or a quarter of Lebanon's population.

The U.N. refugee body said in a statement it was not party to the agreement and stressed that "return of refugees should be made free from undue pressure".

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The United Nations Human Rights Council has expressed reservations about the deal between Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, anxious that "conditions for refugees to return in safety and dignity are not yet in place".

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri told reporters in Beirut that authorities are ready to negotiate to discover the fate of nine Lebanese soldiers who were captured by IS in August 2014 along with those taken by HTS.

The next phase would allow militants and civilians to leave for the town of Al-Rahiba in eastern Qalamoun, while the third phase of evacuation will include civilians wishing to return to their villages in western Qalamoun.

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