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Al-Nusra calls on US-backed rebels to 'withdraw' after killing 5 members

Al-Qaeda affiliate claims responsibility for capturing Division 30's top leaders earlier this week in further blow for US policy in Syria
Al-Nusra Front says it has 'proved' that its captives were involved with US training programme (AFP)

The al-Qaeda -linked al-Nusra Front called on Washington-backed Syrian rebels to withdraw from a “US programme” on Friday, after inflicting a series of punishing defeats on the group.

In a statement released on Friday, the Nusra Front militants claimed responsibility for capturing a group of fighters from Division 30 of the Free Syrian Army earlier this week.

While the US Department of Defence, which runs a “train and equip” programme for rebels deemed suitably moderate, has denied that any of its graduates were captured, US officials have previously confirmed that Division 30 is involved with the scheme, and that trained fighters crossed back into Syria earlier this month.

A CENTCOM spokesperson who contacted Middle East Eye on Thursday refused to deny earlier reports that Division 30 was receiving US training but categorically denied that any of its graduates had been captured by al-Nusra this week.

Al-Nusra said on Friday that it had been able to “prove the truth” of the US training programme after capturing members of the division, including its top leaders, at a checkpoint near the border with Turkey earlier this week.

The announcement comes after Division 30 accused al-Nusra of attacking its command headquarters early on Friday morning, killing five of its fighters.

According to the group’s statement, the attack at 04:30 local time made use of heavy weaponry, also wounding 18 Division 30 members.

The group on Friday called on other factions of the Free Syrian Army to support Division 30 “in an earnest and effective way”.

The fighters also sent out a second plea to its “brothers” in al-Nusra Front to cease their attacks, saying they threatened the unity of the fighting front in Syria.

Hours after that statement was released, al-Nusra Front put out a defiant message to the group, saying they had been forced to "take precautions against" graduates of US-backed training programmes.

"The co-operation and co-ordination between Division 30 and the coalition planes, which hurried to back up the fighters by bombing al-Nusra Front positions, is now clear to everyone."

The attacks referenced by the group, in which up to 18 al-Nusra fighters were killed, reportedly took place shortly after the capture of two Division 30 leaders and at least six of its other fighters.

The statement calls on Division 30 to "return to the right path," urging its fighters to "fight the regime [of President Bashar al-Assad] and in defence of your family".

A CENTCOM spokesperson on Friday refused to speculate as to whether the division was targeted because of suspicions that it is working with the US.

"The attack was decisively defeated," Lt. Commander Kyle Raines said, adding that "the US is committed to the success of the personnel we will train".

Blow to US policy 

Washington's train and equip programme was established to counter the growing threat from Islamic State group. US-trained fighters have previously threatened to quit after being told they must use their new weapons and expertise to fight only IS, and not forces loyal to Assad.

Al-Nusra Front also denounces Washington for placing the group on a list of "terrorist organisations," accusing the US of pursuing policies "for its own benefit in the region".

Washington so far refuses to publicly confirm that it trained members of Division 30.

However, the group's repeated targeting on suspicion of involvement with US training programmes represents a further blow to Washington's policy on Syria, coming as CIA officials admit that a year-long, billion-dollar campaign against IS has left it in "strategic stalemate".

When the new training programme was announced, US officials were unable to clarify whether they would provide air support to the rebels, who analysts feared would become a more valuable target for opposition rebel groups and Assad forces.

Nadim Hassan, the Division 30 leader captured by al-Nusra Front, told the New York Times this week that US trainers had failed to promise his group protection should it come under fire by Assad forces.

It remains unclear what action, if any, will follow from the group's repeated defeats at the hands of al-Nusra.

Saleh al-Hamawi, a founding al-Nusra member recently expelled from the group for speaking out of turn on policy issues, has warned that the group could be now be subject to further attack by the US warplanes bombing Syria.