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Syrian opposition questions Taliban rebel role

By Saima Mohsin and Joe Sterling, CNN
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Thu July 18, 2013
In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war: In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war:
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Are they individuals or part of a splinter group?
  • The Pakistani Taliban is quoted as saying it has fighters in Syria
  • Foreign fighters have been a presence in Syria
  • A Taliban member calls the news of Taliban fighters in Syria a rumor, the opposition says

(CNN) -- Syria's main opposition group cast doubt on a Pakistani Taliban commander's claim that his fighters are establishing a presence in Syria to battle President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The Syrian National Coalition questioned news reports, including on CNN, saying the Taliban has opened an office in Syria. The group notes that a member of Taliban's Shura Council denied the development, calling it a "rumor."

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"We ask for clarification regarding coverage that reflects poorly on the Syrian revolution, particularly news about Taliban's office in Syria and other news items about Islamist fighters," the coalition said in a statement released Thursday.

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Pakistani Taliban commander Abdul Rashid Abbasi told CNN that the first batch of fighters has arrived in Syria and established a command-and-control center to launch operational activities alongside Syrian rebel fighters.

But Ahmed Kamel of the Syrian National Council, an entity that's part of the opposition coalition, called the reporting part of a "systematic" and "rapid" campaign by pro-regime forces to smear the rebels.

He called them "sick attempts to make the Syrian people look like a bunch of radical Islamists."

"Syria is bigger than all of these lies and we know, based on our contacts inside Syria, that no Pakistani Taliban are fighting alongside the Syrian rebels," Kamel said. "The Taliban want to kill Americans and Israelis, so why they should go to Syria when we are fighting for freedom, democracy and justice against a tyrant?"

Read more: Syria is a '10-year issue,' top general says

Lone wolves or part of a splinter group?

The Pakistani Taliban is composed of extremists from around the world.

Abbasi, a close associate of Pakistani Taliban leader Hakeemullah Mehsud, told CNN that 120 fighters are already in Syria and another batch of 150 fighters will arrive this week.

"We shall be sending more volunteers, but cannot give exact numbers at this moment. But we will provide whatever support is needed by our Syrian brothers," Abbasi told CNN.

The fighters, Abbasi said, were sent after the Pakistani Taliban received a request from a top-ranking militant. They will be under the command-and-control structure of al Qaeda in Syria, as it is leading the operation, he said.

But another Taliban commander, who does not want to be named, told CNN he has not had any instructions to ask his fighters to join rebel fighters in Syria.

Nevertheless, he said, fighters have been leaving Pakistan to go to Syria. It's not clear whether foreign fighters who traveled to the tribal areas are now moving on from Pakistan as individuals or if a splinter group of the Taliban has decided to join the battle in Syria.

The commander told CNN the issue of Syria has been discussed in the group's central executive committee, and commanders have remarked that fighters may be going to Syria but they are doing so as individuals.

The group's committee members also discussed how Arab fighters who had come to Pakistan to join the Taliban's jihad have been leaving for other countries since the Arab Spring began.

The commander said the Pakistani Taliban remains focused on its battle against the Pakistani state, and a core group of local militants remains in Pakistan.

Foreign fighters in Syria

This Pakistani Taliban claim comes as the Syrian civil war has become a Sunni-Shiite proxy battle of sorts.

CNN is unable to independently confirm that members of the Pakistani Taliban are inside Syria. CNN journalists previously inside Syria have seen foreign fighters participate in the country's civil war, which sprang from unrest sparked in the spring of 2011.

Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group, has backed the Alawite-dominated government. Alawites are offshoots of Shiites. Sunni Islamist militants, including those who support al Qaeda, are among those who have backed the Sunni-dominated rebel movement.

The Pakistani Taliban, which has long been conducting an insurgency against the Pakistani government, has claimed responsibility for a 2009 suicide strike targeting a CIA facility in Afghanistan and for the Times Square bombing attempt in 2010. The United States has targeted the Pakistani Taliban in that country's tribal region, along the Afghan border.

Abbasi told CNN the group asked its local chapters in the Mohmand, Bajaur, Khyber, Orakzai and Waziristan agencies to recruit fresh fighters who are willing to participate in their mission in Syria. The Pakistani Taliban says many young men are registering to go on their first foreign mission.

"We have lots of fighters here and our central command will be operating from here, so there is no reason to stop operations in Pakistan," Abbasi said. "They will go on as usual."

The Syrian National Coalition, in a letter to English-language media operations, said it is confident that the outlets "strive to convey the news as it is delivered to you from different sources."

"Reiterating its commitment to objectively deliver the truth to all media, the Syrian National Coalition media office stresses the need for media outlets to comply with professional rules and to seek more accuracy while reporting Syria's local and international news," the group said.

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