First fighters trained and equipped by US, Turkey abducted by al-Nusra in Syria

The al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front has abducted 18 members of a U.S.-backed rebel group in northern Syria along with their leaders as they returned from a U.S.-led train-equip program in neighboring Turkey, Anadolu Agency has reported.

The group of 54 fighters had started proceeding into Syria’s interior on July 13 after their training program was completed.

Anadolu said most of the group consisted of Turkmen fighters and were located in the Malikiye village of the town of Azaz, north of Aleppo.

The agency quoted “reliable sources” as saying Turkmen leader Nadim al-Hasan, his deputy and 18 fighters were captured while their guns and equipment were seized.

The Free Syrian Army is in talks to retake the fighters, it said.

The Russia-based Sputnik internet site also quoted the Syrian Turkmen National Movement Party’s Tarık Sülo Cevizci as saying all of those captured were Syrian citizens who were part of the train-equip program and had visited Turkey recently to see their families.

A statement issued in the name of the group, “Division 30,” urged al-Nusra to release them, Reuters said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based group that reports on the war, said the men were abducted while returning from a meeting in Azaz to coordinate efforts with other factions. The opposition source said they were abducted on July 28 at night.

The train-equip program aims to bolster Syrian insurgents deemed politically moderate enough by the United States to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group that has seized wide areas of Syria.

The al-Nusra Front, which Washington has designated as a terrorist organization, has a track record of crushing U.S.-backed rebels in Syria. Last year, it routed the Syria Revolutionaries Front led by Jamal Maarouf, viewed as one of the most powerful insurgent leaders until his defeat.

It was also instrumental in the demise of the U.S.-backed Hazzm Movement, which collapsed earlier this year after clashing with the al-Nusra Front in the northwest.

The U.S. military launched the program in May to train up to 5,400 fighters a year in what was seen as a test of President Barack Obama’s strategy of getting local partners to combat ISIL.

But many candidates were declared ineligible and others dropped out. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said it has fallen far behind plans.

Washington and Ankara this week announced their intention to provide air cover for Syrian rebels and jointly sweep ISIL fighters from a strip of land along the border, with U.S. warplanes using bases in Turkey for strikes.

But the U.S. and Turkey have not yet agreed which Syrian rebels they will support in the effort.

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