The State Department and Pentagon pushed back Friday on claims made by multiple media outlets that the leader of a U.S.-backed Syrian rebel group and as many as 60 other fighters under him were abducted and killed by al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda offshoot operating in that country.
State Department spokesperson Mark Toner told reporters at a daily briefing that he could not confirm that any members of the U.S.-trained moderate Syrian opposition had been abducted.
Toner said he learned Friday that a battle took place between the New Syrian Forces, which include U.S.-trained fighters and an “unknown” force of 50 fighters.
A day earlier, Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, said everyone in the training program had been “all present and accounted for” and that “none have been detained or captured.”
The denials from State and the Department of Defense are in sharp contrast to what The Washington Post, The New York Times, Reuters, BBC and The Associated Press have been reporting.
By Friday afternoon, the BBC was reporting that al-Nusra claimed to have captured a number of rebel fighters who were trained by the U.S. The militant group issued a warning to other groups against taking part in “the American project.”
The Washington Post reported al-Nusra claimed the U.S.-backed rebel group allegedly abducted were acting “as agents of America” in Syria.
The claim comes a day after media outlets reported the U.S.-trained force, called Division 30, announced its own commander, Nadam al-Hassan, had been captured by al-Nusra just north of the Syrian city of Aleppo.
They say the rebels were abducted where a new group of U.S.-trained Syrian opposition fighters entered the country in July from Turkey.
The Post reported members of Division 30 asked al-Nusra to release its members but that al-Nusra refused and accused Division 30 of working with Americans to coordinate airstrikes on the al-Nusra position in the area.
Reuters, citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reported war planes believed to be part of the U.S.-led alliance, had bombed Nusra Front positions near Azaz. SOHR said at least 13 people had been killed on both sides.
On Friday, both sides clashed again near the Turkish border at Kilis.
“Syrian activists posted images of what they said were coalition strikes on an Nusra command center in Azaz on Friday morning,” The Washington Post reported.
Division 30 said in a statement Friday that five of its fighters were killed on Friday, 18 were wounded and another 20 were captured.
It was not immediately clear whether the 20 abducted included the members captured a day earlier.
The conflicting reports are just the latest blow to the nearly yearlong American strategy in Syria and highlights the challenges facing the Obama administration.
Division 30 was pitched to play a role in the ambitious joint push by the U.S. and Turkey to help less radical insurgent groups fight the Islamic state.
However, the strict vetting process in place to recruit – and weed out certain fighters – has only been able to green light a few dozen men willing to take on terrorist cells.
In all, the first contingent of U.S.-backed trained fighters has just 54 members.