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US-led coalition strikes prevent IS evacuation convoy from reaching eastern Syria

IS fighters are being bused from Lebanon to eastern Syria [AFP]

Date of publication: 30 August, 2017

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US-led coalition aircraft have bombed a road in eastern Syrian to prevent an IS convoy evacuated from Lebanon from reaching the Iraqi border.

US planes launched airstrikes on a road and bridge in eastern Syria, to block to path of Islamic State group fighters and their families evacuated from Lebanon to the Iraqi border.

The strikes targeted a small bridge and road leading to the IS-held eastern Syrian town of Albu Kamal, which lies close to the Iraqi border.

Jets from the US-led coalition also hit a group of IS fighters who were heading to meet the convoy, following repeated warnings from Washington that it would not tolerate the retreat of the militants to eastern Syria.

Evacuation deal

The strikes follow an evacuation deal struck between Hizballah and the militants, for IS fighters to leave an enclave on the Syria-Lebanon border to the militants' stronghold in Deir az-Zour.

It follows a week-long Hizballah-led offensive against IS on Syria's frontier with Lebanon, with the Lebanese army advancing from the other side of the border.

After a brief fighting, the sides agreed to evacuate IS militants from Lebanon to eastern Syria, despite the protests of the Syrian opposition, US and Iraqi governments.

The 308 IS fighters and 331 civilians in the convoy are now stranded in the desert, Reuters have reported, after strikes hit a road between the eastern Syrian town of Hmaymah and Albu Kamal, coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon said.

"To prevent the convoy from moving further east, we cratered the road and destroyed a small bridge," he told AFP.  

The next strikes targeted vehicles "clearly identified as IS" which appeared to be heading from Albu Kamal to greet the convoy. 

"If they continue to try to send people that way, then we'll continue to strike them. It could be a running tally," Dillon said.

"IS is a global threat; relocating terrorists from one place to another for someone else to deal with is not a lasting solution." 

The convoys are now looking for a new route to the border town, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported. 

The US said it was monitoring the progress of the convoy and will carry out more strikes to prevent the buses reaching their destination.

"If we are able to strike them without harming civilians, then we will do so," Dillon said.

Asked whether the presence of civilians had prompted the coalition to bomb the road instead of the convoy itself, Dillon told AFP that would be "consistent" with protocol.

The US and its allies have launched hundreds of air strikes on IS since 2014 and is backing Kurdish and Arab fighters in the Syrian Democratic Forces fighting in Raqqa.

The coalition has also aided Iraqi forces who have defeated IS in Mosul and Tal Afar.

Anger

On Wednesday, the US presidential envoy to the anti-IS coalition Brett McGurk sent an angry tweet when news of the deal between Hizballah, the Syrian regime and IS emerged.

"Irreconcilable #ISIS terrorists should be killed on the battlefield, not bused across #Syria to the Iraqi border without #Iraq's consent," he tweeted. 

"Our @coalition will help ensure that these terrorists can never enter #Iraq or escape from what remains of their dwindling 'caliphate'."

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has also described the deal as "unacceptable" and an "insult to the Iraqi people".

Iraqi troops are still battling the last remnants of IS' presence in Tal Afar, while the capital has been targeted in militant suicide bombings.   

Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah has attempted to defend the deal.

"We transferred these defeated fighters from a front where we are battling to another front where we are battling," he said. 

"Our fight and our fate are one," Nasrallah said, addressing Iraqi officials.

Lebanese opponents of Hizballah have also voiced anger at IS fighters travelling "on air-conditioned buses" - some of whom are likely responsible for the murder of eight Lebanese troops whose bodies were discovered this week.

The evacuation deal is said to have been struck after IS fighters led Lebanese authorities to the location of the murdered soldiers.

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