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US, Britain suspend aid to rebels in northern Syria

The US and Britain have suspended nonlethal aid to rebels in northern Syria after Islamists overran a border crossing. In Kuwait, Arab states demanded that foreign militias withdraw from Syria.

The US and Britain decided to suspend nonlethal aid to the opposition in northern Syria after Islamist rebels seized the Bab al-Hawa border crossing and key bases from secular rebels. Nonlethal aid provided by the United States has included armored vehicles, night vision goggles and advanced communications equipment.

"We have seen reports that Islamic Front forces have seized the Atmeh headquarters and warehouses belonging to the [FSA's] supreme military council and we are obviously concerned," said T.J. Grubisha, the US embassy spokesman in Turkey. "Because of the current situation, the United States has suspended deliveries of nonlethal assistance into northern Syria."

Grubisha said the decision would not have an impact on humanitarian assistance coordinated by international and nongovernmental organizations such as the United Nations. Britain announced that it, too, had suspended nonlethal aid to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the country's north, with a spokesman for its Ankara embassy saying the country had decided to do so because "the situation remains unclear" - but, the spokesman added, that did not mean that support for the opposition had diminished. France announced that it would continue to provide nonlethal military aid to the main opposition National Coalition in coordination with its partners in the European Union.

'Rethink and wait'

Last week, Islamic Front fighters seized control of FSA bases at the Bab al-Hawa crossing to Turkey, as well as warehouses belonging to the Supreme Military Council, some containing nonlethal US aid. The Front represents a new alliance of some powerful rebel groups not part of the FSA that seek to establish a religious state in Syria but claim independence from al Qaeda affiliates such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and the Nusra Front.

Turkey announced that it would shut its side of the border in Hatay. A statement issued by the Customs and Trade Ministry confirmed the closure on Tuesday morning and also added that the Syrian side of the Bab al-Hawa crossing had fallen into the hands of the Islamic Front.

The FSA called the US and British moves rushed and mistaken.

"We hope our friends will rethink and wait for a few days when things will be clearer," FSA spokesman Louay Meqdad said.

Plea from Gulf

In Kuwait City, leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) called on foreign militias to withdraw from Syria in a strongly-worded statement at the conclusion of its two-day annual summit. The six-nation Gulf Arab bloc "strongly condemned the continued genocide that Assad's regime is committing against the Syrian people using heavy and chemical weapons".

Comprising Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, the bloc urged "the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Syria" - referring to Iran-backed Shiite militias from Iraq and Lebanon's Hezbollah movement, which have supported President Bashar al-Assad's troops against Sunni-led rebels. The GCC backed the Syrian National Coalition's decision to attend a Geneva peace conference, and expressed hope that the January 22 meeting could lead to the formation of a transitional government with extensive executive powers, and in which Assad would have no role.

"Pillars of the Syrian regime whose hands had been stained by the blood of the Syrian people must have no role in the transitional government or Syria's political future," the bloc wrote.

An estimated 126, 000 people have died in Syria's civil war, which began as a series of nonviolent protests against the Assad regime in March 2011. More than 2 million people have fled the country.

mkg/msh (Reuters, AFP, AP)