Rebels capture largest airbase in north SyriaAgence France-Presse . Beirut
Rebel fighters on Friday overran Taftanaz airbase, the largest in northern Syria, after several days of fierce combat but immediately came under fire from regime warplanes, a watchdog said.
‘The fighting at Taftanaz military airport ended at 11:00 am (0900 GMT) and the base is entirely in rebel hands,’ said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman.
The base, in Idlib province, soon thereafter came under aerial attack by government fighter jets, the Britain-based Observatory said in a later statement.
‘Warplanes are bombing Taftanaz military airport in an attempt to destroy it,’ it said in comments confirmed by a local resident.
The capture of the base marks a significant advance for the rebels, who control vast swathes of Syria’s north and east and are battling President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in most major cities, including on the outskirts of Damascus.
‘This is the largest airbase to be seized since the revolt began’ nearly 22 months ago, Abdel Rahman told AFP by phone.
The rebels have previously taken control of the relatively small Hamdan airport in Albu Kamal on the Iraqi border in the east, and the Marj al-Sultan military airport in Damascus province.
The assault on Taftanaz was led by jihadist fighters from the Al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and Islamic Vanguard battalions, the Observatory said.
Ahrar al-Sham declared in a statement that the ‘seizure of Taftanaz airport opens the door for the liberation of the entire Idlib province, because it is the largest helicopter airport in northern Syria and the second largest helicopter port in the whole country.’
The battalion posted three videos to the Internet, one of which showed fighters celebrating in front of three tanks and cases of ammunition in a weapons depot. The authenticity of the videos could not immediately be verified.
The Observatory confirmed that the rebels seized a major weapons depot and several military vehicles but noted that troops managed to pull out most of the 60 helicopters at the airbase, leaving behind 20 choppers no longer in working condition.
Many soldiers and officers fled the base at dawn, while the total number of casualties for each side was not immediately available.
The aircraft were likely moved to the nearby Mastuma camp, a key military post with the largest concentration of tanks in the area, and the neighbouring town of Fuaa, according to the Observatory.
A military source told AFP at around 9:30 am (0730 GMT) that the rebels had gained control of most of the airport, with the exception of several buildings.
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