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Syria al-Qaeda branch kidnaps at least 8 US-trained rebels

The kidnapped fighters are among around 60 Syrians that the US has trained with the intention of launching a ground force to fight IS
Fighters from al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate al-Nusra Front drive in the Syrian city of Aleppo flying flags (AFP)

Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Al-Nusra Front has kidnapped at least eight rebels who participated in a US training programme to fight the Islamic State group, a monitor said Thursday.

"Yesterday evening, forces from Al-Nusra Front kidnapped the commander of Division 30, Colonel Nadim Hassan, along with seven members of the division, including commander Farhan al-Jassem," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

In an unverified YouTube from 2012 appears to show Hassan defecting from the Syrian air force to join the FSA.

The Britain-based monitor said Division 30 "was returning from a meeting in the city of Azaz in northern Aleppo province to their headquarters in the nearby village of Malikiyeh".

The Azaz meeting "was specifically to coordinate with other rebel groups on the ground to begin a military operation against the Islamic State group in northeastern Aleppo province," said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

He also confirmed that the eight fighters were part of a group of 54 rebels that entered Syria from Turkey around two weeks ago after receiving training there.

On Wednesday afternoon, Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily reported that 18 fighters had been abducted. 

A group claiming to be Division 30 issued a statement about the kidnap that was circulated on social media. 

"The leadership of Division 30 condemns the kidnap of Colonel Nadim Hassan, commander of Division 30, and his comrades, by members of Al-Nusra Front in northern Aleppo province," the statement said.

It called on "the brothers of Al-Nusra Front to free (the kidnapped) as quickly as possible to preserve Muslim blood and avoid weakening the fronts with side disputes between brothers".

The kidnap is a potential blow for the US-led train-and-equip programme, which the Pentagon acknowledged early this month had only managed to identify and train some 60 fighters.

The $500-million programme run out of Turkey is intended to build a force that will fight the Islamic State group on the ground.

But it has been fraught with problems, with few candidates approved for participation and, reportedly, a high attrition rate.

In January, the Pentagon said about 5,400 Syrian rebels would be trained and armed in the first year of the programme.

But on 8 July, Defence Secretary Ashton Carter acknowledged it had fallen far short.

"This number is much smaller than we had hoped for at this point," he said.