RAS BAALBEK, Lebanon (AP) — Islamic State militants and their families began leaving a border area between Lebanon and Syria on Monday as part of a controversial negotiated deal with the extremist group to end its presence there, Lebanese and Syrian media reported.
The militants and their families headed in buses toward a town held by the Islamic State group in far eastern Syria, near the border with Iraq, effectively ending the presence of Sunni militant groups on the Lebanon-Syria border, after al-Qaida-linked fighters were evacuated earlier this month.
The transfer comes nearly a week after Lebanon launched a military campaign to drive IS from the rugged mountainous area along its border with Syria.
The Syrian army and the Lebanese Hezbollah group, which has been fighting alongside President Bashar Assad's forces in Syria since 2013, have been waging their own separate but simultaneous offensive to pressure IS on the Syrian side of the border.
In a televised speech Monday night, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah declared victory and said the country was now free of "terrorists" after buses evacuated 670 people, including the militants and their families.
"The Lebanese army can now set up checkpoints along the border comfortably because the security threat on the other side is no longer there," Nasrallah said. He said 11 Hezbollah fighters died in the week-long operation on the Syrian side of the border.
The transfer of the militants marks the first time the Islamic State group has negotiated a forced evacuation for its fighters. It is part of a deal that came into effect following negotiations, led by Hezbollah, to determine the fate of nine Lebanese soldiers who were captured in 2014.
On Sunday, the Lebanese army, on one side, and Hezbollah and the Syrian army on another, declared separate but simultaneous cease-fires. Shortly afterward, the remains of eight soldiers were located and exhumed in an area near the border with Syria. The fate of one soldier remains unclear. The bodies of five Hezbollah fighters killed fighting the militants were also handed over, allowing for the transfer of the IS militants.
The Lebanese government and Hezbollah both cast the evacuation deal as a victory and a capitulation by IS but many in Lebanon, particularly the families of the dead soldiers, were opposed to the deal, which they said allowed their sons' killers to leave in air-conditioned buses back to Syria.
Nasrallah defended the deal, saying it was the only way to recover the bodies of the captured soldiers. He said the army could have freed those soldiers from the first day had there been political will.
Nearly two dozen buses and 11 ambulances carried the militants and their families Monday from the area straddling the Syria-Lebanon border toward the IS-held town of Boukamal in eastern Syria.
The Lebanese military on Monday took journalists on a tour of areas along the border near Ras Baalbek that were recaptured from IS in the past week. Soldiers, tanks and armored vehicles were heavily deployed along the border area, and caves used by IS bore signs of damage from the recent fighting. About 5,000 Lebanese soldiers took part in the offensive.
A senior Lebanese military official said a number of militants were also leaving from the Lebanese side of the border, to be transferred with the Syrian convoy. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not part of the negotiations, did not have a number for militants leaving Lebanon.
Al-Ikhbariya said the Syrian government approved the transfer of militants to Boukamal to facilitate the talks over the fate of the soldiers.
The military official said once the transfer is completed, the Lebanese army would take control of the evacuated areas. Before the deal, the Lebanese military successfully pushed out IS militants from about 100 square kilometers (38 square miles) while Hezbollah fighters drove IS from another 20 square kilometers (8 square miles).
The Lebanese military said last week 20 square kilometers (8 square miles) remained in the hands of the militants. On the Syrian side of the border, the militants had before the offensive controlled 155 square kilometers (60 square miles).
The U.S-.backed Lebanese army denies coordinating its operation with the Syrian army.
Once the last of the militants depart, the border area will be free of insurgents for the first time since the early days of the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011. The clearing of the area also secures the strategic highway between Damascus and Homs, Syria's third largest city.
El Deeb reported from Beirut.