WASHINGTON (Web Desk) – A group of US-trained Syrian rebels has handed over several vehicles and ammunition supplied by the Pentagon to al-Qaeda fighters, the US military has admitted.
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It said one rebel unit had surrendered six pick-up trucks and ammunition to the al-Nusra Front this week – apparently to gain safe passage.
US Congress has approved $500m (£323m) to train and equip about 5,000 rebels to fight against Islamic State militants.
But the first 54 graduates were routed by al-Nusra Front, the military said.
Gen Lloyd Austin told US lawmakers last week that only “four or five” US-trained rebels were still fighting.
“Unfortunately, we learned late today that the NSF (New Syrian Forces) unit now says it did in fact provide six pick-up trucks and a portion of their ammunition to a suspected al-Nusra Front (group),” Pentagon spokesman Cpt Jeff Davis said on Friday.
Meanwhile, Col Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for US Central Command (Centcom), said this happened on 21-22 September.
He added that the surrendered vehicles and ammunition amounted to roughly 25% of the equipment issued to the unit.
“If accurate, the report of NSF members providing equipment to al-Nusra Front is very concerning and a violation of Syria train-and-equip programme guidelines,” Col Ryder said.
The unit was part of some 70 rebel fighters who participated in the second US training course.
Friday’s acknowledgement contradicts a staunch denial by the Pentagon on Wednesday – when Defense officials dismissed reports that military equipment had fallen into terrorists’ hands. At the time, the Pentagon said the allegations were based on a false report.
“The folks that are part of the New Syrian Force are accounted for, as are their weapons,” Davis said Wednesday.
According to officials, the trucks and ammunition account for a quarter of all US-supplied equipment to the rebel unit.
“We are using all means at our disposal to look into what exactly happened and determine the appropriate response,” Ryder said.
Training rebels is a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s strategy to fight terrorism – particularly the Islamic State – in Syria. In December, Congress earmarked $500 million to fund the strategy.