The Islamic State group has handed over the body of a recently captured Iranian Revolutionary Guard member as part of a deal that allowed hundreds of terrorists and their families to evacuate the Lebanon-Syria border region.
The Lebanese Hezbollah group, which negotiated the controversial deal, said Thursday it had received the body of Mohsen Hojaji and would conduct DNA tests before sending his remains onward to Iran. The handover was reported by the Hezbollah-run Al-Manar tv.
As part of the evacuation deal, the terrorists revealed the locations of the remains of Lebanese soldiers captured in 2014 in exchange for safe passage through Syrian government-held territory to an IS-held area in Syria near the Iraqi border. The deal angered Iraq and the U.S.-led coalition, which said IS terrorists should be killed on the battlefield.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Thursday that he met personally with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Syria to ask for his help in securing a deal that would help clear the border area and uncover the fate of the Lebanese soldiers.
“I went to President Assad … I went to Damascus,” he said, adding that he sought to convince Assad to let the convoy pass through government territory.
“He (Assad) told me, this is embarrassing for us, but no problem,” Nasrallah told supporters gathered in eastern Lebanon for a “victory rally” to celebrate the expulsion of IS from the border area.
“The Syrian government has put up with the embarrassment for the sake of Lebanon,” he said.
The U.S.-led coalition has blasted the deal, and U.S. airstrikes on Wednesday blocked the convoy of evacuees, which includes some 300 fighters and as many civilians, without targeting the evacuees themselves.
Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said some ambulances that were part of the IS convoy were able to cross into IS-held territories in Syria. He added that Hojaji’s body was released after the ambulances carrying wounded IS fighters made it to areas held by the terrorists. He said the group is exploring secret ways in which the convoy can cross into IS-held areas without being targeted by the U.S.-led coalition.
IS recently released a video showing its gunmen capturing a position manned by Iranian-backed fighters on the Syrian-Iraqi border. Hojaji was shown being captured alive and taken into a vehicle. Later footage shows his decapitated body.
Nasrallah said earlier this week that the deal would include the handover of a Hezbollah fighter held by IS as well as the bodies of two Hezbollah members and Hojaji. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah are fighting alongside Assad’s forces.
Coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon said that they continue to monitor the buses. He said he could not confirm whether any ambulances made it to IS-held areas.
“The buses have not made it to ISIS-held territory and we will stick with what we said yesterday and that is we can strike ISIS elements without harming civilians whenever and wherever we will,” Dillon said, using a term to refer to IS. He added that they struck several vehicles in IS-held parts of Syria overnight.
Responding to the Iraqi criticism, Nasrallah said in a statement that negotiating with the terrorists was the “only way” to resolve the “humanitarian and national” issue of finding the remains of nine Lebanese soldiers that the terrorists captured in 2014.
Also Thursday, Syrian activists and Iranian state TV said Syrian troops and allied forces seized a strategic mountain overlooking Deir el-Zour province, which is mostly controlled by IS. Syrian government forces control part of the provincial capital of the same name and its airport, but have been besieged by IS for years.
Russia, which is providing air support to Assad’s forces, says capturing the oil-rich Deir el-Zour province is the current military priority.
The Observatory said the advancing forces gained control of the Bishri Mountains on Thursday. Iran’s state-run Al-Alam TV also reported the advance.