U.S. Warplanes Block ISIS Convoy Being Evacuated From Lebanon-Syria Border

Hezbollah's leader defends the Lebanese group's involvement in the evacuation deal

A bus carrying members of the Islamic State (IS) group leaves the Qara area in Syria's Qalamoun region on August 28, 2017.
A bus carrying members of the Islamic State (IS) group leaves the Qara area in Syria's Qalamoun region on August 28, 2017. LOUAI BESHARA/AFP

U.S.-led warplanes blocked a convoy of Islamic State fighters and their families on Wednesday from reaching territory the group holds in east Syria and struck a group of their comrades travelling to meet them, a coalition spokesman said. 

The strikes were aimed at stopping an evacuation deal for Islamic State fighters to leave their enclave on the Lebanon-Syria border for areas they hold in eastern Syria, arranged by the Lebanese Hezbollah group and the Syrian army. 

It was part of a cease-fire agreed after offensives last week by the Lebanese army on one front, and the Syrian army and Hezbollah on another, that pushed Islamic State back into a small part of its enclave straddling the frontier.
 
The deal has been criticized by the coalition and by Iraq, whose army is also fighting against Islamic State in areas contiguous with the eastern Syria region to which the convoy was headed. 

The U.S. coalition strikes on Wednesday to block the convoy moving into Islamic State territory took place east of Humeima in southeast Syria, near the edge of land held by the Syrian government, coalition spokesman Ryan Dillon told Reuters. 

"We did crater the road and destroyed a small bridge to prevent this convoy from moving further east," he told Reuters by phone. 

He later said the coalition had struck vehicles containing Islamic State fighters that were heading to that area from deeper inside the territory they control to the east. 

He did not know if the evacuation convoy, which contains buses of fighters and their family members, as well as ambulances carrying wounded fighters, was now in Islamic State or Syrian government territory. 

"We're not bound by these agreements," he said, apparently referring to the ceasefire deal. "They're clearly fighters and they're moving to another location to fight yet again. 

"In accordance with the law of armed conflict ... we will strike them if we are able to do so," he said, adding that direct strikes on the convoy would only take place if the militants could be separated from civilians. 

Separately, the leader of Hezbollah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, defended the Lebanese group's involvement in the evacuation deal in a statement responding to criticism of the move from Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. 

Abadi on Tuesday said: "Transporting this number of terrorists from long distance to eastern Syria adjacent to Iraqi borders is unacceptable". 

Nasrallah said it was a Hezbollah deal agreed upon by the Syrian leadership, that the fighters were few in number, and were being moved from one front Hezbollah was fighting in to another.