BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian army and members of Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group launched a major ground offensive on Friday aimed at ending the years-long presence of hundreds of militants in a border area between the two countries.
The offensive was widely expected after negotiations with militants to leave the area failed over the past days. The battle will be fought by Syrian troops and Hezbollah gunmen on the Syrian side of the border while the Lebanese army will likely fight against the militants on the Lebanese side.
On Tuesday, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said the country's military is preparing a military operation to secure a lawless section of the border with Syria while Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah hinted in a speech last week that a joint operation was in the works with the Lebanese and Syrian militaries to expel insurgents from the border area.
Government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media reported that military operations began early Friday from two fronts on the outskirts of the Lebanese town of Arsal and the Syrian village of Fleeta. It said Syrian troops and Hezbollah fighters captured some areas from the militants and killed and wounded a number of extremists.
The rugged mountainous region is a stronghold of Syria's al-Qaida's branch, known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham or Fatah al-Sham Front, as well as the Islamic State group and the Levant People's Brigades. Friday's fighting concentrated in areas controlled by JFS.
Video released by SCMM shows Hezbollah's artillery pounding militant positions while drone footage showed smoke billowing from areas controlled by the militants.
Lebanon's state-run National News Agency said the Lebanese army shelled an area on the border to prevent a group of militants from entering the Arsal area.
There will be concerns about civilian casualties if the militants infiltrate Arsal, which is home to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who fled civil war in their country.
The militant-held areas are surrounded from all sides leaving them with no place to withdraw to.
Hezbollah says the border area has been used in the past to launch attacks deep inside Lebanon, including a wave of bombings since 2013 that have killed scores of people.
In 2014, militants briefly stormed Arsal and captured more than two dozen Lebanese soldiers and policemen. Al-Qaida exchanged the troops it was holding while nine soldiers taken by IS fighters are still missing.