President Barack Obama has asked the Congress to approve $500 million to fund training and equipment for what he described as “moderate” Syrian opposition forces.
The funds would help Syrians defend against forces aligned with President Bashar al-Assad, the White House said.
The aid would also counter Islamist militants such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), it added.
ISIS’s advance in neighboring Iraq has led some in Congress to press Barack Obama to take action.
Barack Obama has asked the Congress to approve $500 million to fund training and equipment for Syrian opposition forces
Tens of thousands of people have died and millions more have been displaced in three years of civil war in Syria, as rebels fight troops loyal to Bashar al-Assad.
“This funding request would build on the administration’s longstanding efforts to empower the moderate Syrian opposition, both civilian and armed,” the White House said.
It will also “enable the Department of Defense to increase our support to vetted elements of the armed opposition”.
The money will help stabilize areas under opposition control and counter terrorist threats, the White House said.
The rebels that would receive the funds would be vetted beforehand in order to alleviate concerns of equipment falling into the hands of militants hostile to the US and its allies, the White House said.
President Barack Obama has been under strong pressure from some members of Congress to increase assistance in the area, although it is unclear whether and when Congress would act on his request.
Last month Barack Obama hinted at increased help for the Syrian opposition in a speech at the military academy at West Point.
Syrian rebels are being evacuated from their last stronghold in Homs, activists say.
Within the past hour, buses have begun leaving the Old City under a deal brokered by the United Nations.
At least two buses have arrived in rebel-held territory to the north, carrying a number of armed fighters.
Syrian rebels are being evacuated from their last stronghold in Homs
It marks the end of any rebel presence in the heart of the major city once dubbed the “capital of the revolution” against President Bashar al-Assad.
The rebel fighters and their families are sad and bitter as they say goodbye to a place they swore they would never leave.
They buckled finally after two years of siege – the government’s forces following a tactic of what some Syrian army officers called “surrender or starve”.
The siege of the Old City was tightened in recent months with intense shelling and air strikes.
The deal was brokered by the UN – which is also supervising the buses now heading into the Old City – and was agreed only after many months of negotiation.
The deal reportedly also involves easing a siege of two predominantly Shia Muslim towns in the north loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
The armed groups within the Old City were deeply divided about whether to accept a ceasefire.
The al-Nusra Front, which is affiliated to al Qaeda, wanted to try to break the siege with a series of suicide bombings. It attempted to do this, but failed, and al-Nusra fighters will be on the evacuation buses too.
One more district of Homs is still holding out, al-Wair on the periphery.
Fighters there have accepted a ceasefire and will leave, too, as soon as arrangements are made.
Syrian rebels have released a group of Greek Orthodox nuns, who were kidnapped in the Christian town of Maaloula in December.
The 13 nuns and their three helpers were said to have been freed as part of a prisoner exchange.
The women have been taken to the town of Judaydat Yabus on the Syrian-Lebanon border, Lebanese state media reported.
Rights groups say kidnappings by both rebel groups and government forces have become increasingly common.
The capture of the nuns had raised fears that Christians were becoming a target for the rebels.
Opposition fighters, including members of the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, seized the women from the Greek Orthodox convent of Mar Takla when fighters overran Maaloula, about 40 miles north-east of Damascus, in December, the Associated Press reports.
The Greek Orthodox nuns were kidnapped in the Christian town of Maaloula in December
The nuns, who are believed to be mostly Syrian and Lebanese, worked in the convent’s orphanage, the agency said.
They were reportedly held for at least part of their captivity in the rebel stronghold of Yabroud, now the target of heavy government bombardment.
The women reached the Syrian town of Judaydat Yabus overnight after a nine-hour journey.
“We arrived late, and we arrived tired,” the Associated Press quoted Mother Superior Pelagia Sayaf, the head of the Maaloula convent, as saying.
She said the women were mostly well treated by their captors.
“God did not leave us,” she said.
“The [Nusra] Front was good to us … but we took off our crosses because we were in the wrong place to wear them.”
About 150 female prisoners are to be released in exchange for the group’s freedom, Lebanese security chief General Abbas Ibrahim told Syrian television.
Top Syrian rebel commander Abdul Qadir al-Saleh has died of wounds he sustained in a government air strike on a rebel-held air base near Aleppo on Thursday, reports say.
Abdul Qadir al-Saleh, the leader of Liwa al-Tawhid, died overnight, a spokesman told the Associated Press.
Abdul Aziz Salama, the brigade’s political leader, had assumed overall command, the spokesman added.
Abdul Qadir al-Saleh has died of wounds he sustained in a government air strike on a rebel-held air base near Aleppo
Opposition activists had said Abdul Qadir al-Saleh, also known as Hajji Marea, was in a good condition in hospital last week.
Liwa al-Tawhid (Battalion of Monotheism) was formed in July 2012 to unite the many separate fighting groups operating in the Aleppo countryside. Later that month, it led a rebel offensive on the city of Aleppo.
Liwa al-Tawhid is now one of the main forces operating in the province, and is estimated to have between 8,000 and 10,000 fighters.
In January, it joined the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), an alliance of Islamist rebel groups that recognizes the Western-backed Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army but not the National Coalition.
According to leading United Nations investigator Carla del Ponte, testimony from victims of the Syrian conflict suggests rebels have used the nerve agent sarin.
Carla del Ponte told Swiss TV there were “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof”.
However, she said her panel had not yet seen evidence of government forces using chemical weapons.
Syria has recently come under growing Western pressure over the alleged use of such weapons.
Carla del Ponte, who serves on the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said in an interview with Swiss-Italian TV: “Our investigators have been in neighboring countries interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals.
Carla del Ponte said there were strong suspicions that Syrian rebels used sarin
“According to their report of last week, which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated.”
Carla del Ponte, a former Swiss attorney-general and prosecutor with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, did not rule out the possibility that government troops might also have used chemical weapons, but said further investigation was needed.
She gave no details of when or where sarin may have been used.
Her commission was established in August 2011 to examine alleged violations of human rights in the Syrian conflict since March 2011 and is due to issue its latest report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in June.
A separate United Nations team was established to look specifically into the issue of chemical weapons.
The team is ready to go to Syria but wants unconditional access with the right to inquire into all credible allegations.
Both the Syrian government and the rebels have in the past accused each other using chemical weapons.
Sarin, a colorless, odorless gas which can cause respiratory arrest and death, is classed as a weapon of mass destruction and is banned under international law.
Forty-eight Iranians held hostage by rebels in Syria since August have been freed, Iranian state TV reports.
The Iranians were released in exchange for 2,130 prisoners held by the Syrian authorities, a Turkish charity said.
Rebel fighters claimed the hostages had been carrying out a mission on behalf of Syrian government forces.
Iran said a number were retired members of the armed forces, but insisted they were pilgrims who had visited a Shia shrine in the south-east of Damascus.
Officials at the Iranian Pilgrimage and Travel Organization said the group included university students and some public servants.
Shortly after they were seized, the Free Syrian Army’s al-Bara Brigade said it had evidence showing that the Iranians belonged to the Revolutionary Guards and had come to Syria to “serve the regime”.
On Wednesday, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, Ahmed al-Khatib, told the AFP news agency that the hostages had been freed.
The Syrian government has not yet confirmed their release and Iranian state TV made no mention of a swap deal.
But earlier, the Turkish Islamic aid organization, Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), said 2,130 civilian prisoners would be released by the Syrian authorities in return for the Iranians.
Forty-eight Iranians held hostage by rebels in Syria since August have been freed
“Most of the prisoners to be swapped are Syrian citizens in exchange for Iranians, and there are a few Turks as well,” IHH board member Osman Atalay told Reuters news agency.
The head of the agency, Bulent Yildirim, was in Damascus to help co-ordinate the prisoner swap, which was already under way, he added.
The Turkish state news agency, Anadolu, said the deal was brokered by Turkey and Qatar, which have backed the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, in which the UN says at least 60,000 people have died.
Meanwhile, the UN’s envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, will meet top US and Russian diplomats in Geneva on Friday, Russia’s Interfax news agency reports, citing the country’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Mikhail Bogdanov.
The meeting will take place less than a week after President Assad dismissed any chance of dialogue with the opposition in a speech on Sunday, and called on Syrians to fight the “murderous criminals” he claimed were responsible for the violence in their country.
On Monday, a spokesman for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he had been disappointed that the speech did not “contribute to a solution that could end the terrible suffering of the Syrian people”.
Ban Ki-moon and Lakhdar Brahimi strongly support the peace plan outlined by the Action Group for Syria in June.
The group called for an immediate cessation of violence and the establishment of a transitional government that could include officials serving under President Bashar al-Assad and members of the opposition.
Lakhdar Brahimi has said any plan must also include a “large, robust peacekeeping force” to ensure the ceasefire is observed.
The United Nations Organization says a video that appears to show Syrian rebels killing soldiers or pro-government militiamen could be evidence of a war crime.
The footage shows gunmen beating a group of prisoners cowering on the floor before opening fire at them.
It has been alleged that Islamist militants carried out the attack after seizing army checkpoints on Thursday.
Unconfirmed reports say troops have now quit all bases near the strategic northern town of Saraqeb.
The town lies near both the main Damascus-Aleppo highway and the highway linking Aleppo to the coastal city of Latakia – making it doubly strategic.
The army, meanwhile, continued its air strikes across Syria on Thursday.
In all, more than 150 people reportedly died in fighting, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based activist group.
The SOHR said that among the victims were more than 70 government soldiers, 43 civilians and 38 rebels.
The claim has not been independently verified.
In a separate development, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, international peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and Arab League Secretary General Nabil el-Araby would meet in Cairo on Sunday to discuss the Syrian crisis, the Arab League announced.
The alleged shootings took place after the rebels overran the strategic army checkpoints between on Thursday.
The video purportedly shows agitated rebels kicking and pushing the soldiers or pro-government militiamen, known locally as “shabiha”, to the ground inside one of the seized buildings. Shots are then seen fired into the cowering mass of bodies.
A spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said it appeared that the victims “were no longer combatants and therefore, at this point, it looks very like a war crime”.
Spokesman Rupert Colville added that the video – if proved to be genuine – would almost certainly form part of a future prosecution.
Meanwhile, Amnesty said in a statement: “This shocking footage depicts a potential war crime in progress, and demonstrates an utter disregard for international humanitarian law by the armed group in question.”
No group has so far admitted carrying out the alleged killings.
However, a rebel fighter from Idlib province, Abu Abdul Rahim, told the Guardian that a Salafi-jihadist group was behind the killings, which he said had occurred in al-Nayrab, to the west of Saraqeb.
He said the Salafists of the Dawood brigade and Suqur al-Sham did not answer to any military council affiliated to the rebel Free Syrian Army.
For months, activists have reported similar summary executions by government forces virtually every day.
But there has been mounting evidence of similar tactics being used by some rebel groups too, although many have signed a code of practice banning such abuses.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier warned that radical Islamist fighters were trying to hijack the Syrian revolution.
The comments have drawn an angry response from some opposition leaders, who say that it is the failure of the outside world to support the uprising with practical help that has left the field open to the radicals.
The SOHR more than 36,000 people have been killed since protests against President Bashar al-Assad erupted in March 2011.
The SOHR is one of the most prominent organizations documenting and reporting incidents and casualties in the Syrian conflict. It says its reports are impartial, though its information cannot be independently verified.
Recent alleged rebel atrocities
• 22 June – Damascus accuses ‘terrorists’ of killing 25 villagers in northern Syria and mutilating their bodies
• 6 July – footage shows a rebel questioning a soldier before shooting him – location unknown
• 1 August – four apparent Assad loyalists are seen put against the wall and shot in public in Aleppo
• 14 August – rebels are shown in a video throwing dead bodies of government snipers from an Aleppo roof
• 17 September – armed opposition groups are accused by Human Rights Watch of torturing and summarily executing detainees in Aleppo, Latakia, and Idlib
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