Lebanon army declares pause in offensive against IS on Syria border

Lebanon\’s army on Sunday announced a pause in its offensive against Islamic State group militants along the border with Syria in exchange for information on troops taken hostage in 2014.
The armed forces launched their campaign against IS militants entrenched in the mountainous Jurud Ras Baalbek and Jurud al-Qaa areas on Lebanon\’s eastern border on August 19.
"The army command announces a ceasefire beginning at 7:00 am (0400 GMT) to make way for the last phase of negotiations linked to the fate of the kidnapped soldiers," it said in a statement on Sunday.
Nine troops are believed to still be held by IS after militants overran the Lebanese border town of Arsal in August 2014 and kidnapped 30 soldiers and police.
The army has said the missing troops were its "top concern" in its offensive against an estimated 600 IS fighters using the hilly border region as a base.
IS has claimed several attacks in Lebanon in recent years, including twin bombings in a densely populated Beirut suburb that killed 44 people.
An army source told AFP on Sunday that its command had agreed to IS\’s request for a ceasefire in order to get more information on the missing soldiers.
The head of Lebanon\’s General Security agency "Abbas Ibrahim has been authorised to negotiate with them for information on the kidnapped soldiers," the source said.
"In the meantime, the battle has stopped. If we find any ulterior motives or if we are dissatisfied with the solution, the army will continue its fight," the source added.
Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which launched its own simultaneous attack against IS from the Syrian side of the border, also declared a ceasefire Sunday.
The group\’s War Media channel said the unilateral pause was "in the framework of a comprehensive agreement to end the battle in west Qalamun against Daesh (IS)".
Two sources with close knowledge of Hezbollah\’s operations in the area told AFP that fighters from the group were searching west Qalamun for the bodies of the missing soldiers.
The troops have been missing since August 2014, when IS and then Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front briefly overran Arsal, a town on Lebanon\’s restive eastern border with Syria.
The groups withdrew under a truce deal, but took 30 hostages from Lebanon\’s security forces with them.
Al-Nusra and IS each executed two of their hostages, and a fifth died of wounds sustained during the fighting in Arsal.
After months of fraught negotiations, Al-Nusra handed over 16 of the soldiers and police in December 2015 in exchange for prisoners from Lebanese jails in a swap overseen by General Security chief Ibrahim.
Lebanese defence minister Yaacoub al-Sarraf told journalists on Sunday that there would be a formal announcement once he had "clear information" on what happened to the soldiers.
The army says its nine-day assault has squeezed IS into 20 square kilometres out of 120 held by the jihadists in Jurud Ras Baalbek and Jurud al-Qaa.
Six soldiers have been killed since the start of the assault, which the army has insisted is not being coordinated with Hezbollah.
Last month, Hezbollah carried out its own campaign further south on the border area against what is now Al-Qaeda\’s former affiliate, after Al-Nusra broke off ties with the extremist group last year.
The six-day offensive ended with a ceasefire under which 8,000 refugees and jihadists were transported to northwestern Syria in return for the release of five captured Hezbollah fighters.
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