A convoy of ISIS fighters and their families being evacuated into another ISIS-held territory in east Syria remained in government-held areas of Syria on Friday, US-led forces said.
According to Reuters, there are about 300 fighters and about 300 civilians in the convoy, which the Syrian army and Lebanon’s Iran-backed militia group, Hezbollah, gave safe passage to after they surrendered their enclave on Syria’s border with Lebanon.
“It has not managed to link up with any other ISIS elements in eastern Syria,” Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the US-led coalition fighting ISIS said.
But the coalition against ISIS has used air strikes to block the convoy from crossing into the group’s main territory straddling Syria’s eastern border with Iraq.
The ISIS fighters in the border pocket accepted a truce and evacuation deal after simultaneous but separate offensives by the Lebanese army on one front and the Syrian army and Hezbollah on the other.
It angered both the coalition, which does not want the fighters bussed to a battlefront in which it is active, and Iraq, which is fighting ISIS across the border.
“We are continuing to monitor that convoy and will continue to disrupt its movement east to link up with any other ISIS element and we will continue to strike any other ISIS elements that try to move towards it,” Dillon said.
The departure of ISIS and other groups from the Western Qalamoun district means the border with Lebanon is Syria’s first to be controlled entirely by its army since early in the conflict.
Qara is only a few miles from the mountains delineating the frontier with Lebanon, in which ISIS and other militant groups held territory until August.
Part of an agreed exchange under the truce went ahead on Thursday as wounded ISIS fighters were swapped for the bodies of pro-government forces. But the fate of the main part of the convoy is uncertain.
“It was moving this morning and then they had stopped … I don’t know if they stopped for a break or were trying to figure out what to do,” Dillon said.