BEIRUT (AP) — The battle against the Islamic State group in an area along the Lebanon-Syria will end within hours, a Syrian army officer said Thursday as the extremists faced news setbacks in the two neighboring countries.
The colonel's comments to the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV came as Lebanese artillery and aircraft pounded IS positions on the other side of the border as part of Lebanon's own offensive against the extremists.
The Lebanese army command said the fourth phase of the offensive that began on Saturday should eventually evict all IS fighters from the border region.
The Syrian army and its ally, the Lebanese Hezbollah group, launched an operation simultaneously with the Lebanese to clear IS from the Syrian side of the border in the western Qalamoun mountain range. Hezbollah has been fighting in Syria alongside President Bashar Assad's forces since 2013.
Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV said that about 400 IS fighters are still in the border area.
Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, said late Thursday that IS still holds 20 square kilometers (7.7 square miles) on the Lebanese side of the border and 40 square kilometers (15.4 square miles) on the Syrian side. He said in televised remarks that for any settlement for IS fighters in the area, the fate of nine Lebanese soldiers whom the extremists kidnapped in 2014 must be revealed.
"The most likely outcome of the battle will be a military victory and not a settlement," Nasrallah said. "What was achieved on both fronts is very important."
Elsewhere in the fight against IS, Syrian troops and their allies besieged a large area controlled by IS in central Syria on Thursday.
The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media and the opposition's Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian troops have now surrounded an area of 2,000 square kilometers (772 square miles) in the Syrian desert, widely referred to as Badia.
This adds to another area in central Syria, similar in size, which came under government siege earlier this month.
Syrian troops have captured wide areas from IS in northern and central Syria over the past months, under the cover of Russian airstrikes. The army is now pushing in the direction of the eastern city of Deir el-Zour where a Syrian force and tens of thousands of civilians have been under siege by IS for nearly three years.