BEIRUT: Syrian rebels seeking to topple President Bashar Assad fought intense battles with his troops Sunday to try to seize control of three military air bases in the country’s north and curtail the regime’s use of its punishing air power, activists said. Rebels, who have been trying to capture the air fields for months, broke into the sprawling Abu Zuhour air base in northwestern Idlib province and Kweiras base in the Aleppo province Saturday. Fighting raged inside the two facilities Sunday.
The opposition-aligned, Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least seven fighters were killed in the fighting in Abu Zuhour, in addition to an unknown number of soldiers. The group, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said the Syrian air force conducted an airstrike on Abu Zuhour village during the fighting to ease pressure on government troops inside the base, which rebels have laid siege to for about a month.
“The rebels have broken into the airport but they are still on the periphery and are engaged in violent clashes with soldiers,” Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman told AFP.
“It’s an important military airport because it’s still functional.”
Rebels control much of Idlib and Aleppo provinces, which border Turkey, although government troops still hold some areas including the provincial capital of Idlib province and parts of the city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest urban center.
Since the beginning of the year, rebels have been fighting what they call the “battle of the airports in Aleppo” to deprive the regime of a key supply route.
Rebels have set their sights on the Aleppo international airport, along with the Jarrah, Kweiras, Minnigh and Nayrab military fields. They took the Jarrah military airport on Feb. 12.
The Aleppo Media Center said rebels also seized 60 percent of the Minnigh helicopter base near the border with Turkey Sunday. Rebels from the Islamist al-Burraq Brigades announced that fighters from multiple factions in northern Aleppo have launched a large-scale offensive to seize full control of the facility.
Government troops regularly shell nearby areas from the Minnigh base, including a rocket attack overnight on the town of Tal Rifaat near the border with Turkey that killed at least four people, including two women and a child.
Anti-regime activists of the Aleppo Media Center said the rocket, which slammed into a residential area of Tal Rifaat, was a ground-to-ground missile, or Scud, although this could not be independently verified.
The Syrian Revolution General Commission activist network reported 30 wounded and 10 houses destroyed, adding a mother and her two daughters were among the dead.
“The toll could rise, with bodies buried under the rubble,” said the Observatory, which relies on a network of sources on the ground.
Amateur video footage posted online by activists showed men clearing away debris in the dark and then removing the body of a child, as cries were heard from the crowd.
In February, the Observatory cited activists as saying the army fired Scuds on Aleppo city, killing 58 people including 36 children. Damascus has denied using Scuds.