Rebels overran Friday morning Taftanaz airbase, the largest in northern Syria, after several days of fierce combat, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“The fighting at Taftanaz military airport ended at 11:00 am (0900 GMT) and the base is entirely in rebel hands,” said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.
“Many regime forces have been killed and most of the soldiers and officers fled at dawn,” he told AFP by phone.
“This is the largest airbase to be seized since the revolt began” nearly 22 months ago, said Abdel Rahman.
In previous months, the rebels have taken control of the 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 Al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and Islamic Vanguard battalions, as well as other rebel groups, the Observatory said.
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 in the airbase, leaving behind 20 choppers that are no longer in working condition, the Observatory said.
Regime warplanes launched air raids Thursday on a military airbase in northwest Syria to try to dislodge rebels who have seized more than half of the compound amid fierce clashes on the ground, a watchdog said.
The strikes on Taftanaz military airport came after the hardline Ahrar al-Sham and Al-Nusra Front battalions stormed it on Wednesday following a protracted siege, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Fighting continued inside the airbase on Thursday near the main buildings as warplanes and helicopters bombed the airport and surrounding areas, the watchdog said.
The insurgents had already seized a weapons depot and captured 13 troops, including an officer, the Observatory said, adding that 11 militiamen loyal to the regime of Bashar al-Assad were reportedly taken prisoner.
According to the watchdog, the rebels also seized 16 to 20 aircraft, but they had been damaged during the clashes or disabled and were not airworthy.
The Syrian Revolution General Commission, a grassroots network of activists on the ground, reported that helicopters were dropping explosive barrel-bombs on the town of Taftanaz.
Near Damascus, loyalist troops carried out air raids on the Eastern Ghuta region and the town of Maliha on the eastern outskirts of the capital, as clashes broke out in the town of Sayyida Zeinab to the south.
The army has for months been trying to regain total control of Damascus and its environs, and battles have raged outside the capital where insurgents have set up rear bases.
The regime has frequently claimed to be waging a “final” crackdown on the rebellion in Damascus province, but such announcements have proved false.
On Thursday, the pro-regime newspaper Al-Watan reported that the army “continued to progress on all axes of Damascus, carrying out intensive military operations on all fronts despite the difficult weather conditions.”
On Wednesday, 57 people were killed in violence across Syria, according to the Obervatory, which relies on a network of activists and medics on the ground.
Rebels preparing to take Taftanaz base:
Rebel troops and vehicles finally break through:
Then there is this video, which appears to have been taken on the base itself. In the video, fighting continues as it appears the main building is still occupied by Assad troops at the time of filming:
Syrian rebels, some from Islamist units, fired machineguns and mortars at helicopters grounded at a northern military air base near the main Aleppo-Damascus highway on Wednesday, a monitoring group said.
The al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham Brigade and other units operating in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib were attacking the Afis military airport near Taftanaz, the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
There was no immediate account of the fighting around the air base from Syrian state media.
Insurgents trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad see his air power as their main threat. They hold swathes of eastern and northern provinces, as well as a crescent of suburbs around the capital, Damascus, but have been unable to protect rebel-held territory from relentless attack by helicopters and jets.
In recent months, rebel units have besieged several military installations, especially along Syria’s main north-south artery from Aleppo, its most populous city, to Damascus.
The Observatory’s director, Rami Abdelrahman, said Wednesday’s attack was the latest of several attempts to capture the base. A satellite image of the airport shows more than 40 helicopter landing pads, a runway and aircraft hangars.
An estimated 45,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict, which began in March 2011 with peaceful protests against four decades of Assad family rule but turned into an armed revolt after months of government repression.
In Damascus, Assad’s forces fired artillery and mortars at the eastern districts of Douma, Harasta, Irbin and Zamlaka, where rebels have a foothold, activists living there said.
Syria’s civil war is the longest and deadliest conflict to emerge from uprisings that began sweeping the Arab world in 2011 and has developed a significant sectarian element.
Rebels, mostly from the Sunni Muslim majority, confront Assad’s army and security forces, dominated by his Shi’ite-derived Alawite sect, which, along with some other minorities, fears revenge if he falls.
U.N.-led diplomatic peace efforts have stumbled. Western and many Sunni Arab states demand Assad’s immediate removal, an idea resisted by Russia, China and Syria’s Shi’ite ally Iran.
The rebels say they will not negotiate unless Assad, who has vowed to fight to the death, leaves power.
More than 110 people, including at least 31 of Assad’s soldiers and militiamen, were killed in Syriaon the first day of 2013, according to the Observatory, which tracks the conflict from Britain using a network of contacts inside the country.
#Syria, DamascusTribune Watch 4 rockets landing on2 buildings in Taftanaz in #Idlib. Cameraman reciting prayers b/c he think he’ll die
15/11/2012 #Syria Bombing attack on Taftanaz, Idlib. Apart from the understandable terror of the cameraman, note the decoy flares released as a defence against heat-seeking missiles. Bombs released shortly after.
by Harry Smith - last updated Sun 4 Nov 2012Smoke rises from Taftanaz airport during clashes between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and the Free Syrian Army near Idlib Photo: REUTERS/ Abdalghne Karoof
Bombing raids in Syria were the start of one of their more concentrated attacks on military power, according to rebels.
Using what are described as improvised rockets, fighters aimed at one of the countries most strategic air bases in Taftanaz.
There is no way of verifying how effective the onslaught was, but the base is used by government helicopter gunships, which have been mounting regular attacks on rebel strongholds.
The mere fact that rebels can mount such an offensive, suggests they have the weapons and the capability to take on government forces on their own territory.
Control of airspace is crucial to the regime’s survival.
Observers say president Assad’s forces appear to be increasingly overstretched, even in their ability to use air power especially in the north around Aleppo.
Rebels say they are now involved in a push to cut off Syria’s biggest city from the seat of government and secure a vital north-south corridor.
It could though be days or even weeks before the out come is clear.
Scenes from the battle :
Cameraman nearly hit by warplane
Devastation from aerial bombardment :
Damage to the Mosque :
Bombing of Mosque
Complete destruction of Mosque