BEIRUT — A 17-bus convoy carrying Islamic State militants and civilian evacuees from the Lebanon-Syria border has split into two groups as it tries to reach extremist-held territory further east, the U.S.-led coalition said Sunday.
The evacuees were allowed to relocate under a deal brokered by the Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group that has angered Iraq and the coalition. Syrian opposition activists said Saturday that dozens of IS fighters and their families have crossed into areas controlled by the extremists using civilian vehicles despite U.S. threats to bomb the convoy.
More than 300 militants and their families were in the convoy after vacating the border area a week ago. Hezbollah and the Syrian government allowed them passage across government-held territory in return for revealing the location of the remains of Lebanese soldiers captured in 2014.
The coalition said in a statement that one group remains in the open desert to the northwest of the town of Abu Kamal, bordering Iraq, and another group has headed west toward the historic town of Palmyra. It added that the coalition “will not condone” IS fighters moving further east toward the Iraqi border.
The statement said that over the past week, the coalition has struck approximately 85 IS fighters and about 40 IS vehicles in the vicinity of the convoy. They include a tank, an artillery system, armed technical vehicles, and transport vehicles seeking to facilitate the movement of IS fighters to the Iraq border.
Hezbollah said in a statement Saturday that coalition warplanes are still preventing the convoy from moving east and barring anyone on the government side from reaching them. It warned that wounded and elderly evacuees could die.
Hezbollah said that six buses are still in areas controlled by the Syrian government and warned that if they are hit civilians will be killed. It added that if aid does not reach the convoy “only the Americans will bear the responsibility” for what happens.
The coalition said food and water have been provided to the convoy but did not say how or by whom. It added that the coalition and the Iraqi government are not part of the evacuation deal “to allow these experienced fighters to transit territory under the Syrian regime control to the Iraqi border.”
The coalition said it will continue to monitor the convoy but not allow it to link up with IS fighters in eastern Syria and western Iraq. It said the coalition will continue take action against IS without harming civilians.