Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria releases seven US-backed rebels

Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria releases seven US-backed rebels
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A Department of Defense official on Monday confirmed reports that the Nusra Front, al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, freed seven members of a U.S.-backed rebel force kidnapped last month.  

"The reports are fairly accurate," the official said.  

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The official clarified, however, that the freed rebels were from the group Division 30 — and not any of the U.S.-trained New Syrian Force (NSF) rebels.

Last month, about 50 Nusra Front militants attacked an encampment in Azaz in northwestern Syria, where Division 30 and some NSF fighters were based. 

The NSF rebels had just arrived to the encampment and were embedded with the Division 30 rebel group. 

Two days before the July 31 attack, the Nusra Front kidnapped five Division 30 rebels. During or after the attack, the Nusra Front kidnapped at least five NSF rebels and killed one.  

It is not clear when additional Division 30 rebels were kidnapped, or how the releases came about.

Days before the release, Division 30 had released a statement on social media that purportedly said the group would only fight the Syrian regime and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), not the Nusra Front. 

After the release on Sunday, Division 30 released a statement that said, "We welcome this noble initiative and urge the brothers of Al-Nusra and hope that they will release in the coming hours the group's commander and other fighters," according to Agence France-Presse.

Although U.S. officials said about 30 Nusra Front militants were also killed in the fight, the losses of NSF rebels were another setback in the Pentagon program to train and equip rebel forces to fight against ISIS. 

Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced in July that only 60 rebels had been trained in the $500 million-plus per year program that was approved by Congress in September and funded in December.  

The Pentagon said last week that two more NSF classes are being trained.