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Pentagon confirms US-trained Syrian fighters held by Nusra

After denying to MEE that kidnapped forces were US-trained, Pentagon official confirms Nusra-held fighters are part of US programme
Al-Nusra Front fighters during a 2014 parade in Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp (AFP)

After denying last week that members of the new US train-and-equip programme for Syrian fighters had been kidnapped, the US Department of Defence says it now has indications that rebels from the programme have indeed been detained by Syria's al-Qaeda affiliate.

Last week, al-Nusra Front said that it had captured US-trained rebels from the Free Syrian Army's Division 30 unit.

In a statement released soon after the kidnapping, al-Nusra urged the rebels to "return to the right path" and "fight the regime [of President Bashar al-Assad] and in defence of your family".

Among the captured rebels is Nadim Hassan, the Division 30 leader. Just days before his kidnapping, Hassan, once a pilot in the Syrian air force, voiced concerns to the New York Times that his group's US trainers had not promised to protect the fighters if they came under fire by Assad's forces.

He also said that night vision goggles requested from the Pentagon had yet to materialise, and that some of his fighters had threatened to quit over unpaid expenses.

When MEE contacted the Defence Department last Thursday to obtain more details about the incident and the rebels involved, a spokesperson denied that they were part of the new, multimillion dollar US training programme. 

"We've seen the press reports, but have no information to provide," said an email response from spokesperson, Cmdr Elissa Smith. 

"While we will not disclose the names of specific groups involved with the Syria Train and Equip programme, I can confirm that there have been no New Syrian Force personnel captured or detained."

A CENTCOM spokesperson, also last 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 Front. Some observers suggested this could mean that the rebels were part of the US programme, but had been trained by Turkish instructors.

But this Wednesday, Smith told the Turkish Anadolu news agency that the Defence Department now has "indications members of the New Syrian Forces have been detained by al-Nusra Front in Syria".

"We are monitoring the situation, but have no further details to provide," Smith told Anadolu.

It would appear that the kidnapping of the rebels has been a watershed moment for US policy in Syria. After the US conducted air strikes on al-Nusra fighters last Friday to give Division 30 rebels cover as al-Nusra attacked their headquarters, US officials said for the first time on Sunday that they would now use airstrikes to defend US-trained rebels from any attacker, including forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.