By Mariam Karouny
BEIRUT, March 14 (Reuters) - Most of the first contingent of Syrian rebels taught by U.S. army and intelligence officers in Jordan to use anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry have finished their training and are now returning to Syria to fight, a senior rebel said on Thursday.
Western officials and Syrian rebel commanders declined to comment on reports in the German weekly Der Spiegel and other media outlets last week that said Americans were training anti-government Syrian forces in Jordan.
But a senior rebel commander close to the process said U.S. army and intelligence officers were training Syrian rebels and said most of the first batch of 300 fighters picked from southern Syria had finished their courses.
"This is a sensitive matter as you know, but yes the American army and intelligence are training some of the rebels," he told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
The United States has said it would provide medical supplies and food directly to opposition fighters, but has ruled out sending arms for fear they may find their way to Islamist hardliners who might then use them against Western targets.
But, the commander said, Washington had taken the decision to train the rebels "under the table".
The commander said U.S. officials contacted the opposition General Command and offered to help some months ago. The General Command then asked brigades operating under its leadership to nominate "good fighters" to be trained to use advanced weapons such as anti-tank and anti-aircraft rockets, in addition to learning intelligence-gathering techniques.
Most of the first contingent of 300 fighters came from Damascus, the surrounding countryside, and Deraa, close to the border, because it was easier for them to reach Jordan.
"The courses vary, it takes between 15 days to one month and the fighters are divided into groups of 50 each. Each group travels to Jordan independently, not the 300 together," he said. "It is defensive training."
Most of the first group of 300 had now returned to fight in Syria, he said, but more were arriving to be trained.
Some 70,000 people have been killed since largely peaceful protests that began nearly two years ago against President Bashar al-Assad were met by live ammunition and morphed into an armed insurgency.
For security and logistical reason fighters from northern Syria could not join the training in Jordan, the commander said. But the rebel command is trying to convince the Turkish government to allow them to open a training camp in Turkey.
"We are hopeful that the Turks will allow us to have this camp where American officers train us," he said. (Editing by Jon Hemming)