Middle East

Syria rebels 'capture key Aleppo airbase'

Map of Syria

Rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have captured a key airbase in Aleppo province, near the Turkish border, activists say.

The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said rebels took Menagh airport early on Tuesday.

The opposition has been trying to capture the base since last year.

Jim Muir, the BBC's correspondent in Lebanon, says the base lies on a major rebel supply route from Turkey.

Rebels have also recently taken several villages in Latakia province, the heartland of President Assad's minority Alawite sect.

They remain strong in the country's north, despite recent gains by loyalist forces - in the cities of Damascus and Homs, and other areas of Aleppo.

As the battle at Menagh was raging, the government celebrated its own victory in the central city of Homs as the defence minister toured the Khalidiyeh neighbourhood which was recently retaken from rebel control.

Meanwhile, the SOHR said there were reports that army shelling of a market in Aleppo city on Monday night had resulted in the deaths of eight civilians, including three children.

More than 100,000 people have been killed in the 28-month conflict in Syria, with a further 1.7 million Syrians forced to seek shelter in neighbouring countries, according to UN estimates.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption There have been frequent clashes in Aleppo

Fierce fighting

The Menagh airbase, north of Aleppo, is isolated in rebel-held territory and had been under siege since last December.

Rebels gradually captured most of the sprawling base in recent months, leaving only about 70 loyalist troops pinned down in the command headquarters.

Our correspondent says the final push, carried out by at least nine different rebel groups, began with a suicide bomb attack on the headquarters, reportedly by a Saudi militant.

Activists posted unverified video on the internet apparently showing the huge explosion that took place at the airbase command post, as the rebels' final push began. Other videos purportedly showed rebels walking around the base following its fall.

The capture of the airbase consolidates opposition control in the area, but rebel positions continue to come under daily attack from long-range artillery and from air strikes.

State media did not acknowledge the base had fallen, insisting loyalist troops were "resisting the terrorists".

At least 10 rebels are reported to have died in the fighting, and some of the government troops are also said to have been killed, with others captured.

On Sunday rebel forces also captured a series of Latakia villages, after attacking government outposts with anti-tank missiles in the Jabal al-Akrad hills. They are pursuing guerrilla warfare in mountainous terrain, where it is hard for government forces to use their armoured vehicles to advantage, our correspondent says.

The move brings rebels closer to Mr Assad's hometown of Qardaha, though state media say government forces are striking back.

The SOHR said troops and rebels had been engaged in fierce fighting in Latakia for two days.

The Latakia region represents the political heartland of the Alawites, who make up about 10% of Syria's Sunni-dominated population.

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