BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese soldiers in ISIS captivity since 2014 are almost certainly dead, a senior security official said on Sunday, just hours after the army announced a ceasefire to hold talks over their fate.
The ceasefire halted the fighting in an ISIS enclave at the Syria-Lebanon border, where the militants have been battling the Lebanese army on one front and Hezbollah with Syrian troops on the other.
ISIS has held nine Lebanese soldiers captive since 2014, when it briefly overran the border town of Arsal with other militants – one of the worst spillovers of the Syrian conflict. The fate of the troops had been unknown since then.
Lebanon’s army announced that its ceasefire near the northeast town of Ras Baalbeck took effect at 7 a.m (0400 GMT). Hezbollah and the Syrian army also declared a ceasefire in their attack against ISIS in Syria’s western Qalamoun region, Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV said.
The ceasefire continued to hold on both sides of the border throughout the day, as sources said plans for an evacuation of the remaining militants were under discussion.
The fighting began a week ago when the Lebanese army, and Hezbollah together with Syrian government forces, launched separate but simultaneous assaults.
Both offensives have advanced towards the Syria-Lebanon frontier from opposite sides, hemming the militants into a small zone straddling the border. Lebanon’s army and Hezbollah have each said the battle was nearing victory.
The ISIS pocket marks the last militant foothold in the arid hills along the Syrian-Lebanese frontier.
Defeating ISIS there would end years of insurgents from Syria’s six-year war holding territory in the mountainous border region, and allow the two countries to consolidate control of the frontier.
The head of Lebanon’s internal security agency said the army and security forces had retrieved remains thought to belong to six of the soldiers and were conducting digs on Lebanese land for two others. DNA tests were needed to confirm the identities.
“We believe, almost certainly, that these are the remains of the soldiers,” said the general, Abbas Ibrahim, who mediated talks between the army and the militants. The whereabouts of the ninth soldier remain unknown.
The soldiers’ families had gathered in central Beirut on Sunday and said they would hold out hope until the last minute.
Ibrahim arrived in the afternoon to give them the news.
“I know this is a difficult moment … Liberating the land often calls for offering our souls to this country,” he said as some relatives of the captives wept.
Authorities found some information about the soldiers in 2015 but had not revealed it because they could not confirm the deaths, he added.
“Those who surrendered from Daesh led us to the soldiers. The rest will be sent into Syria,” Ibrahim said. “We do not bargain. We are in the position of the victor and are imposing conditions.”
A military source had said earlier that ISIS fighters had “succumbed … and asked for the negotiations”.