By BASSEM MROUE
BEIRUT — The U.S.-led coalition said Wednesday it carried out airstrikes to disrupt a convoy of Islamic State militants being evacuated from the Lebanon-Syria border to an IS-held area in eastern Syria near Iraq, without targeting the evacuees themselves.
Coalition aircraft struck a small bridge and cratered a road to hinder the convoy’s progress. The coalition also struck a separate group of IS militants traveling to meet the convoy, according to Col. Ryan Dillon, a coalition spokesman.
U.S. officials have criticized the transfer of hundreds of militants and civilians who are bound for an IS-held area near the Iraqi border, saying the extremists should be killed on the battlefield. The evacuation came as part of a controversial deal brokered by the Lebanese Hezbollah group to clear IS from an area along the Lebanon-Syria border.
The coalition is reluctant to strike the actual convoy of evacuees because the fighters have wives and children traveling with them, said a U.S. official, who wasn’t authorized to discuss military details and requested anonymity. Although Hezbollah members are believed to be the ones escorting the convoy, the Syrian government’s involvement creates further risk for the U.S. if the coalition were to hit it.
The coalition nevertheless said in a statement that it is not bound by the evacuation agreement. There are about 300 militants and almost as many family members on buses being evacuated under the deal.
“We are monitoring their location in real time,” Dillon said, adding that the coalition “will not rule out strikes against IS fighters being moved.”
He added that any strike will be in accordance with “the law of armed conflict and if we are able to do so and can discriminate and discern the difference between fighters and civilians.”
Syrian opposition activists said the convoy, which left the Lebanon-Syria border on Tuesday, is still in government-held territory in eastern Syria.