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US admits assisting Syria rebels

Friday, June 15, 2012    

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WASHINGTON, USA (AFP) — The United States yesterday acknowledged providing communications equipment and other forms of assistance to members of the "peaceful opposition" in Syria.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the aid is part of "non-lethal" assistance to Syrians living under President Bashar al-Assad's regime, and part of a global effort to support Internet freedom.

Nuland declined to elaborate on the aid, but a source familiar with the effort said it includes things such as anonymising software, and satellite phones with GPS capabilities "to document the location of atrocities".

Nuland said the Internet freedom initiatives are part of "programmes that we do around the world that we've been doing with Syrians and many, many other countries for quite a long time".

These are programmes "that help citizens in countries where the Internet is restricted or unavailable to find ways to have access to the Internet so that they can know their fundamental freedom to expression and access to information is respected," she told a press briefing.

The US has spent $76 million since 2008 for these programmes around the world and has another $25 million that will be allocated this year.

Nuland said that additional aid for Syria "is largely in the communications area" and is "designed to help those who are subjected to government intrusion, government interruption of their ability to communicate with each other, to do so to help support unity among the peaceful opposition."

Time magazine reported this week that the State Department has been providing media-technology training and support to Syrian dissidents by way of small nonprofits.

Asked about the report, Nuland said it was "greatly over-revvedMeanwhile a team of United Nations observers yesterday visited the Syrian town of Al-Haffe, finding it all but deserted with several state buildings burned to the ground after a rebel withdrawal.

An AFP correspondent travelling with the eight-member team said municipal buildings, including the local water department and courthouse as well as several shops and cars had been torched.

There was no sign of life on the streets, except for a few workshops open, already trying to remove traces of the destruction and repair the damage.

Most anti-regime graffiti had been covered up in black paint, though part of a Koranic verse was still visible on one building facade.

"If you return, so too shall we," was seemingly written by rebels before they evacuated the town, whose entrance is now guarded by a military checkpoint.

UN observers since June 7 had been trying to enter the mainly Sunni Muslim town, located in northwest Latakia province and near the border with Turkey, to check on reports of a possible massacre there by regime forces.

Syrian state television said the observers visited the region yesterday and "inspected the vandalism and destruction wrought by the terrorists."

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