A cease-fire was declared Sunday on both sides of the Lebanon-Syria border, officials said, pausing attacks on Islamic State to allow the transfer of the militants out of the area and recover what were thought to be the remains of kidnapped Lebanese soldiers.
The announcement came after a weeklong offensive by the Lebanese army to oust the Sunni Muslim extremists from their last bastion in the wildlands near Ras Baalbek, a Lebanese border village.
At the same time, the Syrian army, backed by irregulars from the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, launched its own campaign against Islamic State on the other side of the border.
A communique Sunday from the Lebanese army said that its forces halted attacks on Islamic State at 7 a.m. to facilitate negotiations to “reveal the fate” of nine soldiers who had been missing since 2014.
They were among about 30 soldiers and policemen snatched by a number of militant groups when they overran the Lebanese border town of Arsal. Sixteen of the captives were released in December 2015 in a deal with the Al Qaeda affiliate then known as Al Nusra Front, but there had been no word of those held by Islamic State.
Lebanon’s security chief, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, said Sunday that the army had retrieved the remains of what were thought to be eight soldiers and had taken them to a nearby hospital for DNA testing. Six of the bodies were found wearing military uniforms, he told reporters outside the tents in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, where family members of the kidnapped soldiers have been camped out for years waiting for news of their loved ones.
“Those who surrendered to us from Daesh were the ones who led us to the location where the soldiers were [buried],” Ibrahim said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
The Syrian army also declared a cease-fire Sunday and gave the militants safe passage to the eastern Syrian province of Dair Alzour, which is largely under the control of Islamic State.
Hezbollah, which is a key battlefield ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad and negotiated Islamic State’s departure, said in a separate statement that a number of buses and cars had arrived in the area to transport the militants to the city of Bukamal, near the border with Iraq.
Lebanese officials insist there has been no coordination with their Syrian counterparts or with Hezbollah, even though the offensives began and were paused at the same time.
Authorities in Beirut fear that any appearance of cooperation with Hezbollah, which the United States has designated a terrorist group, would jeopardize the military aid they receive from Washington. They also fear a backlash from local political factions who resent Hezbollah’s alliance with Assad.
Bulos is a special correspondent.