Lebanon finds suspected remains of troops held by ISIS

Relatives of Lebanese soldiers taken hostage by extremists in 2014 sit inside a tent as they gather in downtown Beirut on Aug 27, 2017 awaiting news of their loved ones. PHOTO: AFP

BEIRUT (AFP) - Lebanese authorities located on Sunday (Aug 27) human remains they believe to belong to soldiers kidnapped three years ago by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group along the restive eastern border with Syria.

The announcement came hours after the Lebanese army declared a pause in its nine-day assault on IS in exchange for information on the missing soldiers.

Head of General Security agency Major General Abbas Ibrahim said ISIS fighters who had surrendered led his agency and the Lebanese army to the remains.

"We have removed the remains of six bodies. We are expecting the number to go up to eight," he told reporters gathered in downtown Beirut. "We believe that these remains belong to the soldiers."

The troops were among 30 soldiers and police kidnapped by ISIS and Al-Qaeda's former Syrian affiliate when they overran the Lebanese border town of Arsal in August 2014.

Four were killed by their captors and a fifth died of his wounds while 16 were released in a prisoner swap in December 2015 that was also overseen by Ibrahim.

Nine troops remained missing but on Sunday Ibrahim only spoke of eight bodies.

He said DNA testing would be carried out to determine the identities of the remains, adding however that he was "almost certain that the case is closed".

Ibrahim spoke to reporters after informing the families of the missing soldiers of the latest developments.

The families had gathered for hours in downtown Beirut amid blistering hear for new of their loved ones.

They sat in tents they had pitched three years ago during protests to pressure the government to find the troops.

The army had said the missing soldiers were its "top concern", as it launched an offensive earlier this month against an estimated 600 ISIS extremists in the border region.

Before Sunday's ceasefire, the army had squeezed ISIS into 20 square kilometres out of 120 held by the extremists in the mountainous region of Jurud Ras Baalbek and Jurud al-Qaa, near the Syrian border.

Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which had simultaneously launched its own assault against IS from the Syrian side of the border, also declared a ceasefire on Sunday.

Hezbollah'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)".

The deal is expected to see hundreds of ISIS fighters leave both sides of the border to an area in eastern Syria, Syrian and Lebanese sources said.

A source close to Hezbollah told AFP the deal would see ISIS's "surrender and deportation from west Qalamun (in Syria) and the Lebanese outskirts to the city of Mayadeen in Deir Ezzor province." Mayadeen is an IS-held city in near Syria's eastern border with Iraq.

- Defeating IS in Lebanon - .

Hezbollah has been fighting alongside troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad since the Syrian conflict erupted in 2013.

Syria's state news agency SANA, quoting a military source, confirmed Hezbollah and IS had agreed that "the remaining Daesh (ISIS) fighters will leave to eastern Syria".

And a Lebanese military source told AFP the jihadist group would quit territory it held in eastern Lebanon.

"When this happens, Daesh's military presence in Lebanon - its control of geographic territory - will be finished," the source said.

But the source warned that IS still had "sleeper cells" in Lebanon.

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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