BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrians who left Lebanon after a ceasefire between Hezbollah and Nusra militants on Thursday started crossing into a rebel-held area of Syria where they will settle, Lebanese media reported.
As part of the same agreement, captured Hezbollah fighters began to be released at the same crossing point between government and rebel areas in northwestern Syria.
About 7,000 Syrians, including Nusra militants and refugees, left the Arsal district on the border between Lebanon and Syria as part of a ceasefire deal that also involves the handover of captured Hezbollah fighters.
The ceasefire took effect last week, just days after Shi’ite Hezbollah and the Syrian army launched an offensive to drive Nusra Front and other Sunni militants from their last foothold in the border area between Lebanon and Syria.
A convoy of more than 100 buses arrived on Thursday at Saan in Hama province, where they began to cross the front lines from government territory, Hezbollah-affiliated al-Manar television reported. The buses left Arsal on Wednesday evening.
Al-Manar broadcast what it said was live footage of the exchange, showing a line of buses slowly driving on a narrow road towards the crest of a low, brown hill and an ambulance traveling in the opposite direction.
Hezbollah is an important ally of the Syrian government in the war against rebel groups that include the Nusra Front. Eight of its fighters were being held by Nusra in Arsal, of whom three were freed on Wednesday and more on Thursday.
The crossing point at Saan gives access to the main rebel enclave in northwest Syria, including Idlib province and large parts of Aleppo province.
Hezbollah fighters on Thursday moved into the areas around Arsal that Nusra abandoned under the ceasefire, a Hezbollah military media unit reported.
The Lebanese army is expected to soon begin an assault on an Islamic State pocket in the same area and on Thursday it shelled the militant positions there, a security source in Lebanon said.
The head of Lebanon’s internal security service, General Abbas Ibrahim, said in a television interview that the army was preparing its offensive but was willing to negotiate a surrender by the jihadists.
He added that the only other armed group still in the mountainous border area, Saraya Ahl al-Sham, which holds a tiny area on the frontier, would withdraw in the coming days.
The transfer of militants along with large numbers of refugees has echoed deals struck within Syria in which Damascus has shuttled rebels and civilians to Idlib and other opposition areas.
Such evacuations have helped President Bashar al-Assad recapture several rebel bastions over the past year and are criticized by the opposition as amounting to the forced transfer of populations seen as sympathetic to the opposition.
Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Larry King