Rebels overrun largest military airbase in north Syria: NGO

January 11, 2013 - 2:28:18 pm
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 soon thereafter, however, 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 a statement.


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, as well as other rebel groups, the Observatory said.


Many soldiers and officers fled the base at dawn, while the total number of casualties for each side was not immediately available.


The rebels seized several military vehicles and a major weapons depot.


The government forces, however, managed to pull out most of the 60 helicopters deployed at the airbase, leaving behind 20 choppers that are no longer in working condition, the Observatory said.


The aircraft were likely moved to the nearby Mastuma camp and the neighbouring town of Fuaa, according to the watchdog. (AFP)