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Syrian rebels says Turkey tipped al-Qaida group to U.S.-trained fighters

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — The kidnapping of a group of U.S.-trained moderate Syrians moments after they entered Syria last month to confront the Islamic State was orchestrated by Turkish intelligence, the McClatchy Washington Bureau reported Monday, citing unnamed rebel sources.

The rebels told McClatchy that the tipoff to al-Qaida's Nusra Front enabled Nusra to snatch many of the 54 graduates of the $500 million program on July 29 as soon as they entered Syria, dealing a blow to the Obama administration's plans for confronting the Islamic State.

Rebels familiar with the events said they believe the arrival plans were leaked because Turkish officials were worried that while the rebels' intended target was ISIS, the U.S.-trained Syrians would form a vanguard for attacking Islamist fighters that Turkey is close to, including Nusra and another major Islamist force, Ahrar al Sham.

A spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, declined to respond to questions about the incident, saying any discussion of Turkey's relationship with Nusra was off-limits.

Other Turkish officials acknowledged the likely accuracy of the claims, though none was willing to discuss the topic for attribution. One official from southern Turkey said the arrival plans for the graduates of the so-called train-and-equip program were leaked to Nusra in hopes the rapid disintegration of the program would push the Americans into expanding the training and arming of rebel groups focused on toppling the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Officials at the U.S. Defense Department, which is responsible for the training program, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The United States and Turkey have clashed for years over what U.S. officials characterize as Turkey's willingness to work with Nusra, which the U.S. declared a foreign terrorist organization nearly three years ago.

Turkey also has openly criticized the train-and-equip program for its insistence that participants agree to focus their efforts on defeating ISIS, not on battling Assad.

The Turkey-U.S. conflict over how to confront ISIS has been a point of friction between the two NATO allies since the United States began its bombing campaign against the group a year ago. Only last month did Turkey agree to allow manned U.S. aircraft to fly from Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey. The first mission took off Aug. 12.