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AP Exclusive: Syria rebels recruit at refugee camp

Tuesday - 11/12/2013, 5:10am  ET

In this Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013 photo, a Syrian refugee girl runs near the transportation area, which is designated for those who want to return to Syria, at Zaatari refugee camp, in Mafraq, Jordan. In the bustling marketplace of this sprawling camp for Syrian refugees, a mosque preacher appeals to worshippers to join their countrymen in the fight to topple President Bashar Assad. In another corner of the Zaatari camp, two men draped in the Syrian rebel flag call on refugees through loudspeakers to sign up for military training. Rebels in the camp freely acknowledge recruiting fighters in the camp in a drive that has increased since the summer. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)

JAMAL HALABY
Associated Press

ZAATARI CAMP, Jordan (AP) -- In a makeshift mosque in a trailer in this sprawling camp for Syrian refugees, a preacher appeals to worshippers to join their countrymen in the fight to topple President Bashar Assad. In another corner of the Zaatari camp, two men draped in the Syrian rebel flag call on refugees through loudspeakers to sign up for military training.

Rebels in the camp freely acknowledge recruiting fighters in the camp in a drive that has increased since the summer, trying to bolster rebel ranks in the face of stepped up offensives by Assad's forces just across the border in southern Syria.

Recruiting is banned in Zaatari, and the rebel activities put Jordanian officials and United Nations' officials running the camp in a delicate position. Wary of further increasing tensions with the government in neighboring Syria, Jordan has sought to keep its support of rebels under the radar, officially denying that any training of anti-Assad fighters takes place on its soil, though both Jordanian and American officials have acknowledged it does.

For the U.N., the recruitment mars what is supposed to be a purely humanitarian mission of helping the streams of Syrians fleeing the 2 ½-year-old civil war, which activists say has killed more than 120,000 people. Zaatari, only 16 kilometers (10 miles) from the Syrian border, is home to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees.

Andrew Harper, head of the Jordan office of the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, which runs the camp, says he has heard reports of rebel recruitment but has seen no evidence.

"If we see anything on the recruitment or the fighters coming into the camp, we will notify the Jordanian government," he told The Associated Press. "The camp is for the Syrian refugees, not the fighters, and we must ensure that its neutrality and impartiality is kept."

When an AP reporter told him of instances of overt recruitment witnessed by AP in the camp, Harper expressed surprise. "We can't afford to have anybody in the camp, except civilians. But what I'm hearing is seriously alarming."

A Jordanian Cabinet official also expressed surprise when told how overt the recruitment has become. "If anyone is recruited in Zaatari, we will take action because this is a violation of the law," he said. He spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn't authorized to speak about the issue.

An AP reporter visiting Zaatari found rebels from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army unabashed in talking about their search for new fighters, which they say has brought in dozens of recruits in past months. Other fighters visit the camp often to see family living there and take a short break from the war. There was no sign that rebels from radical Islamic factions, such as the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra operate in Zaatari,

Training does not take place in the camp. Abu Salim, who heads the Free Syrian Army's military council in southern Syria, said a 40-day training camp for rebel fighters is conducted at a location in Jordan or sites in southern Syria. He would not give details on any of the locations.

"Zaatari is an exporter of fighters," said Abu Salim, a former top Syrian army officer. "We see civilians maimed, our homes destroyed and our relatives jailed, tortured or killed, so we react by recruiting and training people to fight the tyrant government back home." He spoke on condition he only be identified by his nom de guerre for fear of reprisals.

Several refugees in Zaatari who have not joined the rebels but with knowledge of their activities said some training takes place at three Jordanian army installations near the border with Syria. The Jordanian army refused to comment.

The camp provides a potentially rich recruiting ground. The refugees are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims, the majority population in Syria that has been the backbone of the rebellion, and they have almost all fled from rebel-dominated areas bearing the brunt of the Syrian military's crackdown on the uprising.

Abu Abdullah Hourani, a rebel sniper, said recruitment in the camp has increased since August because the FSA needed more fighters to battle against a stepped-up military offensive in southern Syria. He spoke in a Zaatari trailer where he sipped coffee with other rebels who had slipped out of Syria and into the camp for a break of several days from fighting. Their discussion centered on their hatred of Assad's Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shia Islam.

"Shiites want to dominate Syria and Assad is helping them by killing us, the Sunnis," said Hourani, who spoke on condition he be identified only by his nom de guerre for fear of reprisals.

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