Syrian rebels celebrate capture of key air base

REBEL forces have captured a major military air base in northern Syria, a second important strategic victory in as many days.

The assault on the Jarrah airfield in Aleppo province comes a day after opposition fighters seized the nation’s largest dam, an iconic industrial symbol of the four-decade rule of president Bashar al-Assad’s family. The rebels have had their greatest success in Syria’s civil war in the north-east, and the twin victories appeared to indicate that they are solidifying their control of large areas of the country’s once heavily-contested north.

The director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said that after days of sporadic clashes around the Jarrah airfield, rebels launched a major assault on the base on Monday and had over-run the facility by yesterday morning.

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He said several regime troops in the area were killed or wounded in the fighting, while others fled as the rebels advanced. There was no word on opposition casualties.

The airfield, which is located near the Furat dam captured on Monday, housed fighter jets that have been carrying out air strikes on rebel held-areas.

A video posted online by activists showed several military aircraft at Jarrah, some of them parked on the tarmac, with another in a hanger, with boxes of ammunition piled up against a wall nearby.

“These warplanes are now in the hands of Ahrar al-Sham Islamic movement,” one rebel says in the video, referring to a specific rebel unit.

Abu Abdallah Minbij, one of the opposition commanders who planned the attack on the airbase, said that two operational MiG jets and ammunition were found intact at the base, along with 40 disused fighter jets.

“The airport was being used to bomb northern and eastern rural Aleppo. By capturing it, we have cut the regime’s supply line from Aleppo to the east,” Mr Minbij said.

The air base is located near the north-eastern town once known as Tabqa. The town’s name was changed to Thawra, Arabic for revolution, after the Furat dam was built there in the late 1960s.

Earlier this month, the Observatory said rebels seized another smaller dam in Raqqa province, the Baath dam, named after Syria’s ruling party. In November, Syrian opposition fighters captured Tishrin hydro-electric dam near the town of Manbij in northern Aleppo province, which borders Raqqa.

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While the rebels control many areas in the north and east of the country, and hold whole districts of the city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest urban centre and its main commercial hub, the government maintains a tight grip on the capital Damascus, and several central provinces, including Homs and Hama.

For nearly a week, the rebels have been trying to slowly battle their way into the capital from suburbs and towns on its doorstep, and have punched to within a mile of the heart of the city.

Residents and activists in Damascus said the Syrian army had moved tanks to central Abbasid Square to shore up its defensive lines after rebels breached it last week and then struck several security targets in the heart of the capital.

Jets bombarded rebel-held areas in the east of the capital and in an expanse of farmland and urban areas known as Eastern Ghouta, from where rebels have launched an attack to cut off the loyalist supply lines.

“The bombing has been terrible. The centre of Damascus is shaking. You can hear the jets from here,” said one woman.

Last night, United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay said the number of people killed in Syria’s civil war was probably now approaching 70,000.

Less than six weeks ago, Ms Pillay said the death toll had exceeded 60,000, a figure she called “truly shocking.”

But she told the UN Security Council yesterday that there have probably been almost 10,000 new deaths in recent weeks.

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Ms Pillay said the council’s deep division and inaction over the nearly two-year-old Syrian conflict “has been disastrous, and civilians on all sides have paid the price.”

She again urged the council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.