BEIRUT: Syrian rebels pressed on Friday with their offensive in northern parts of the country, storming an air defense base and killing more than 100 government troops in the last two days.
The moves came as Turkey scrambled two fighter planes to the border with Syria after a regime military helicopter bombed the Syrian border town of Azmarin, a Reuters witness said, and as Russia objected to Ankara’s seizure of the cargo of a plane from Moscow earlier in the week.
Videos posted online showed rebels inside the Al-Taaneh base, east of Aleppo, inspecting lines of large missiles, some on launchers, while others lay on the backs of transport trucks.
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Aleppo activists reached via Skype also reported the takeover of the base. One activist, Mohammad Abu Omar, said four rebels had been killed in the overnight battle for the facility. One Aleppo activist said the rebels had taken all the munitions they could from the newly captured base and that he hoped they could find a way to use the missiles against Assad’s air force.
“We have asked all countries to help us with anti-aircraft weapons and no one has, so hopefully these will help,” said the activist, Mohammad Saeed.
Some of the videos purportedly shot inside the air defense base stated that the extremist group Jabhat al-Nusra participated in the overnight battle, while the Observatory and the Aleppo activists denied that the group took the lead role in the fighting.
Syrian rebels have killed more than 100 soldiers in two days, the Observatory said. Fourteen soldiers died Friday in an attack on an army post in the southern province of Deraa, it added, a day after the army suffered 92 losses, the highest daily total for the military of the 19-month conflict.
With an average of 20 deaths per day, the army has lost about 10,000 soldiers, with at least an equal number wounded, in the conflict, a military hospital official told AFP. In August, the same source reported more than 8,000 deaths.
The rebels also posted videos claiming their capture of Kfar Houm, a village on the border with Turkey.
Russia said that the Syrian plane intercepted by Turkey on a flight from Moscow was carrying a cargo of dual-purpose radar equipment but insisted that Moscow did not violate any laws.“We have no secrets,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in the Russian government’s first public remarks about the nature of the cargo.
“The plane contained cargo that a legal Russian supplier delivered legally to a legal client,” Lavrov said in remarks posted on the Kremlin website.
Lavrov’s confirmation that the plane was carrying sensitive cargo to Syria came after the respected Kommersant newspaper reported that the plane was carrying Russian radar parts for Syrian missile defense systems, but not weapons.
The plane was loaded with 12 boxes containing parts for radars used in the Syrian army’s missile defense systems, Kommersant quoted sources in the arms export industry as saying, denying accusations by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the cargo included ammunition.
The spokesman of Russia’s weapons export agency Rosoboronexport Vyacheslav Davidenko denied that “there was any cargo belonging to us” on the plane, as Erdogan had implied.
The Syrian Air plane flying from Moscow to Damascus was forced to land at Ankara’s Esenboga airport by the Turkish air force Wednesday.
The plane was later allowed to continue to Damascus but Turkey has held on to what it deemed to be suspect cargo. Erdogan said the plane was carrying “equipment and ammunition” destined for the Syrian Defense Ministry that had apparently been provided by Rosoboronexport.
The incident has not only raised tensions between Turkey and the Syrian government – already at bitter odds – but also hurt ties between Ankara and Moscow which have starkly differing views on the Syria conflict.
For its part, the Obama administration said Russia was pursuing a “morally bankrupt” policy in Syria, following the plane incident.
The State Department said that it had “grave concern” that Russia was continuing to supply the Syrian regime with “serious military equipment,” particularly because it is a member of the U.N. Security Council with presumed responsibilities for maintaining global security.
But State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the only reason the shipment was legal was because Russia, along with China, has repeatedly blocked U.N. sanctions against Syria. She said it was “legally correct, but the policy is still morally bankrupt.”
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he had hastily scheduled a visit to NATO partner Turkey in a bid to ease rising tensions with Syria.
Westerwelle, who is on a trip to China, said he would hold talks Saturday with his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu in Istanbul on “the situation in Syria and on the Turkish-Syrian border.”
In Syria, dozens of anti-regime demonstrations took place around the country to mark a day of Friday protest labeled “The free people of the Syrian coast will create victory.” It was a reference to the recent unrest in Assad’s hometown of Qardaha in Latakia, where a gunfight reportedly pitted members of several families critical of Assad’s handling of the crisis against his clan and an allied family.