A batch of 75 rebels newly trained by US and coalition forces in Turkey to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group have entered northern Syria, according to a monitoring group.
The rebels had entered Syria in a convoy of a dozen cars with light weapons and ammunition, under air cover from the US-led coalition that has been carrying out strikes against ISIL in Syria and Iraq, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Sunday.
“Seventy-five new fighters trained in a camp near the Turkish capital entered Aleppo province between Friday night and Saturday morning,” Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory, told Al Jazeera.
He said the rebels crossed through the Bab al-Salama border point, the main gateway for fighters and supplies heading into Aleppo province.
That supply route has been increasingly targeted by ISIL fighters seeking to cut off support to rival rebels.
Abdel Rahman said the rebels had deployed to support two US-backed units, with most assigned to Division 30 – the main unit for US-trained fighters – and others to a group called Suqur al-Jabal (Falcons of the Mountain).
Before the fresh batch, the US-led train-and-equip programme had only managed to vet and train about 60 rebels to fight ISIL.
The $500m programme run out of Turkey has been fraught with problems, with more than a dozen of those already deployed with Division 30 either killed or detained by the Nusra Front.
The Nusra Front is still holding Nedim Hassan, the commander of the rebels who were detained in late July.
Some of the rebels have since been released and have returned to Turkey.
The Syrian Observatory also said pro-government forces and opposition fighters had agreed to begin a ceasefire from midday on Sunday in three battleground districts.
The truce covers the two remaining villages in Idlib province in the northwest still in government hands and the opposition fighters’ last stronghold near the Lebanese border, the town of Zabadani.
“Fighters stopped military operations early this morning, but the official ceasefire will begin at noon [9am GMT],” Abdel Rahman said.
The developments came a day after John Kerry, the US secretary of state, said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must step down, but not necessarily immediately, upon reaching a settlement to end the country’s civil war.
Speaking after talks in London with British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond on Saturday, Kerry said he was prepared to negotiate to achieve a solution but asked whether Assad was.
“For the last year and a half we have said that Assad has to go but how long, what the modality is … it doesn’t have to be on day one or month one or whatever,” Kerry said.
“There’s a process by which all the parties have to come together and reach an understanding of how this can be achieved.”