AN EXTREMIST jihadi group which is thought to be linked to al-Qaeda fought alongside a group of rebels who seized a government missile defence base in Syria yesterday, activists said, heightening fears that extremists are taking advantage of the chaos in the country to acquire advanced weapons.
Videos posted online said to have been shot inside the base said the group, Jabhat al-Nusra, participated in the overnight battle for the air defence base near the village of al-Taaneh, east of Aleppo in northern Syria.
The videos show dozens of fighters inside the base near a radar tower, along with rows of large missiles, some on trucks.
Eyewitnesses who visited the base yesterday said Jabhat al-Nusra had seized the base. Video reports showed a number of missiles and charred buildings, as fighters covered their faces with black cloths.
Two Aleppo-based activists along with Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, also said that Jabhat al-Nusra fought in the battle.
Little is known about Jabhat al-Nusra – “The Support Front” – which began claiming responsibility for attacks in Syria earlier this year in postings on jihadi forums often used by al-Qaeda. While neither group has officially acknowledged the other, analysts say al-Nusra’s tactics, jihadist rhetoric and use of al-Qaeda forums point to an affiliation.
Western powers – and many Syrians – worry that Islamist extremists are playing an increasing role in Syria’s civil war, which started in March 2011 as a mostly peaceful uprising against president Bashar al-Assad.
Activist say more than 32,000 people have been killed in the conflict so far.
Many countries have cited the presence of extremists among the rebels as a reason not to supply them with weapons. Rebel leaders argue that the lack of military aid leaves a vacuum that extremists can exploit.
The base captured yesterday is part of a large air defence infrastructure built across the country, mostly for use in a possible war with arch-enemy Israel.
Last week, the rebels reported seizing another air base outside the capital, Damascus, and another in the southern province of Daraa. Videos posted online show them torching vehicles and seizing boxes of ammunition in the Daraa base.
The storming of such bases embarrasses the Assad regime, though it is unclear if the rebels have the know-how to deploy the weapons seized.
Nor is it clear if the rebels are holding the bases after storming them. Reports yesterday said rebels were already preparing to withdraw, fearing airstrikes by the regime.
Rebel forces have been vulnerable to airstrikes by the Syrian military, though they have shot down a few attack helicopters and claim to have downed at least one warplane.
Mohammed Saeed, an activist in Aleppo, said the rebels had taken munitions from the newly captured base, and he hoped they could find a way to use the missiles against the government’s air force.
He said: “We have asked all countries to help us with anti-aircraft weapons and no-one has, so hopefully these will help.”