Lebanon-Syria border (CNN)Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant and political organization, says it is nearly halfway through its stated goal of clearing al Qaeda-linked militants from the mountainous border between Syria and Lebanon.
Hezbollah shows off border gains with slideshow and tour
But there's still a tough fight ahead, according to Hezbollah officials who took CNN on a rare tour of recaptured territory.
During a daylong visit to both Lebanese and Syrian territory, in which Hezbollah placed filming restrictions on the media but were at pains to be cooperative and hospitable, reporters were shown mountainous bases that Hezbollah officials said had been held merely a week ago by al Qaeda-linked militants, the Nusra Front, which Hezbollah says threatens Lebanon's wider security.
Hezbollah officials did not want to be quoted or give their names, but explained in a slideshow presentation briefing in a headquarters in Dahiyeh, the southern Beirut suburb they dominate, that they have already cleared 310 square kilometers (120 square miles) of territory -- about 40% of the total -- most of which is inside Syria.
The battle ahead will likely include a fight for Arsaal, a remote Lebanese town that has been home to Syrian refugees and increasingly radical Syrian rebels for years now
It was rare access to a group that the United States and many of its allies list as a terrorist organization and that continues to threaten Israel. It was part of a broader effort by Hezbollah to explain its strategy in the border regions at a time when it is garnering criticism.
Critics of Hezbollah's policy in the mountainous region -- known as the Qalamoun -- say militants are exaggerating the extremist nature and al Qaeda links of the rebels there to justify launching a military operation against them that could jeopardize security inside Lebanon if radicals choose to retaliate against civilian targets. The Nusra Front has also been proscribed by the United States as a terrorist organization.
On Thursday, the former prime minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, who is a figurehead for Sunnis in the country against whom Hezbollah is at times opposed, criticized the upcoming offensive in Arsaal.
He said in an emailed statement: "Before asking Arsaal any question, let them [Hezbollah] ask themselves what they are doing in Qalamoun. Who authorized them to trespass the borders with weapons and militants and bring in terrorism to the Lebanese territory?"
The Hezbollah tour went as far as two kilometers (1.25 miles) inside Syria, where reporters were told there were1 0 kilometers of reclaimed territory before Syrian military positions. It also showed reporters a series of abandoned militant positions the Hezbollah guides said were formerly manned by the Nusra Front -- effectively al Qaeda in Syria.
The positions showed minimal equipment -- with the occasional empty tube from a shoulder-fired missile --and how militants were scratching a humble existence in basic caves.