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US-trained Syrian rebels probing alleged defection – Moscow sees growing chance for international deal on Syria

BEIRUT, Sept 23, (Agencies): US-trained rebels who recently returned to Syria said Wednesday they have lost contact with one of their officers and that they are investigating reports he defected and handed over his weapons to al-Qaeda’s branch in the country. The allegations come only days after the group of about 70 rebels returned to Syria after training in Turkey as part of the US program to train and equip rebels to take part in the fight against the Islamic State group.

If confirmed, defection among the ranks of US-trained rebels would be an embarrassment to the program, which has already been criticized as offering too little too late and failing to provide enough protection for those trained rebels once inside Syria. US officials have begun an overhaul of the efforts, including suggesting that the newly trained fighters operate as the New Syrian Forces alongside Syrian Kurds, Sunni Arab and other anti-Islamic State forces.

The US Central Command confirmed Monday the graduates have re-entered Syria with their weapons and equipment and were to operate alongside existing western-allied forces.

Another previous batch of rebels trained by the US had previously been hit hard by their rival, al-Qaeda branch in Syria. Meanwhile, Moscow sees a growing chance to reach international agreement on fighting terrorism in Syria and resolving a conflict which has killed a quarter of a million people, a Russian diplomatic source said on Wednesday.

Diplomacy has so far failed to find a solution to the crisis, now in its fifth year, with international powers supporting rival sides and unable to overcome their differences over the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. With Assad facing increasing pressure from Islamic State and Western-backed rebels, Moscow has stepped up support for its long-time ally at the same time as it pushes a new diplomatic offensive on Syria.

It has increased arms supplies to the Syrian army and increased its military presence inside Syria, drawing warnings from Western nations — which oppose Assad — that it was destabilising the situation further. It is not clear what agreement could be reached on the main sticking points in the conflict, but the Russian diplomatic source said the growing threat posed by Islamic State was driving new international efforts for a deal.

The Syrian regime has intensified its air strikes on the jihadist-held ancient city of Palmyra, killing more than 100 people including civilians in recent days, a monitoring group said Wednesday. The fierce raids follow the delivery by Russia of new arms including warplanes to its ally Syria. Raids by warplanes and helicopters using barrel bombs and missiles left at least 12 civilians and 20 jihadists dead on Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Dozens more were wounded in the strikes against targets including a militant headquarters in the city, which the Islamic State group seized along with its UNESCO-listed world heritage site in May

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