BEIRUT

Middle East

ISIS mops up around Tabqa airport

A man holds up a knife as he rides on the back of a motorcycle touring the streets of Tabqa city with others in celebration after Islamic State militants took over Tabqa air base, in nearby Raqqa city August 24, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

BEIRUT: Militants from ISIS engaged in mopping-up operations around the Tabqa military airport Monday, one day after seizing the facility from government forces and cementing the group’s control over Raqqa province.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime monitoring group based in Britain, said ISIS fighters battled with regime troops in a farm on the outskirts of the military base, and appeared to seize the area.

Regime airplanes carried out half a dozen raids on Tabqa as well, the Observatory added, but no information on casualties was available.

Observers following the conflict noted that ISIS militants, when they seized the air base Sunday, also captured quantities of sidewinder missiles and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles (MANPADS), as well as military aircraft, although few believe that ISIS militants would be able to make use of the latter.

ISIS militants, who are believed to have killed around 170 government soldiers and captured another 150, posted photographs of the captured equipment and ammunition on social media.

Anti-regime activists also posted video footage on YouTube, purporting to show the discovery of regime corpses in fields around the Tabqa airport by residents.

As in the aftermath of its recent take-overs of military facilities, militants placed the severed heads of government soldiers on an iron fence in Naim Square in the city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS operations in Syria, the Observatory said.

It added that ISIS militants in Raqqa banned all buses and other vehicles from leaving the province in a bid to prevent any regime military personnel from escaping the area, while informing the public that the move was in order to “preserve the safety of Muslims.”

The Observatory said regime airstrikes Sunday on the city of Raqqa killed a total of 11 civilians, while the nationwide death toll, inflated by the Tabqa air base seizure, stood at 672 people – 248 of the total were regime troops and paramilitary allies, more than half of whom were killed in Tabqa

The Observatory added that since President Bashar Assad’s July 8 inaugural address after winning re-election to a third term, more than 3,100 regime troops and paramilitary allies have been killed in the war – Assad pledged to retake Raqqa and the city of Aleppo from jihadists and insurgents in the speech.

Meanwhile, the Observatory, citing “informed sources,” said that some 320 fighters joined the ranks of ISIS on Sunday, when it seized Tabqa. The development came after a total of 6,300 joined the extremist group in July.

Regime airstrikes Monday also targeted the town of ISIS-held town of Dabiq in northern Aleppo province, killing at least five civilians and wounding a number of others in the incident, the Observatory said.

Also in Aleppo province, regime airstrikes pounded the town of Ikhtarin, held by ISIS, and killed at least five militants. Near the town of Marea, a stronghold of the Islamic Front alliance, at least 15 ISIS fighters – including an “American suicide bomber” – were killed in clashes, while three Islamic Front fighters were killed, the Observatory said.

Regime airstrikes targeted ISIS fighters near the town of Yaaroubieh on the border in Iraq in Hassakeh province, where ISIS militants were engaged in clashes with the YPG Kurdish militia, the Observatory said.

On another front, a coalition of Islamist militias, led by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, targeted the Hama military airport with Grad missiles, the Observatory said. The militias have been making show gains in areas around the city of Hama in recent weeks and have vowed to put the military airport out of action.

The grinding stalemate of the war has seen all sides claim gains in recent days – regime forces Sunday killed 32 insurgents in Deraa province in the south, while rebel militias claimed gains against several regime positions in the Qalamoun and Wadi Barada regions on the border with Lebanon.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 26, 2014, on page 8.

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