Rebels overrun largest military airbase in north Syria: NGO
DAMASCUS (AFP) – Rebels Friday overran Taftanaz airbase in north Syria, a watchdog said, marking a significant advance that came as peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met with top US and Russian officials on the Syrian crisis.
“The fighting at Taftanaz military airport ended at 11am (0900 GMT) and the base is entirely in rebel hands,” said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman.
The base soon thereafter, however, came under aerial attack by government fighter jets, the Britain-based Observatory said in a later statement.
“Warplanes are bombing Taftanaz military airport in an attempt to destroy it,” it said.
The capture of the base marks an important advance for the rebels, who control vast swathes of Syria’s north and east and are battling President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in most major cities, including on the outskirts of Damascus.
“This is the largest airbase to be seized since the revolt began” nearly 22 months ago, Abdel Rahman told AFP by phone.
The rebels have previously taken control of the relatively small Hamdan airport in Albu Kamal on the Iraqi border in the east, and the Marj al-Sultan military airport in Damascus province.
The assault on Taftanaz was led by jihadist fighters from the Al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and Islamic Vanguard battalions, as well as other rebel groups, the Observatory said.
Many soldiers and officers fled the base at dawn, while the total number of casualties for each side was not immediately available.
The rebels seized several military vehicles and a major weapons depot.
Government forces, however, managed to pull out most of the 60 helicopters deployed at the airbase, leaving behind 20 choppers that are no longer in working condition, the Observatory said.
News of the capture of the airbase came as Brahimi, the UN-Arab League special envoy on Syria was meeting in Geneva with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and US Undersecretary of State William Burns.
They made no comment as they arrived for the closed-door talks at the UN headquarters in Geneva.
The discussions are taking place a day after Syria accused Brahimi of “flagrant bias”, casting doubt on whether he could stay on as international mediator.
Damascus lashed out at the veteran Algerian diplomat after he described proposals Assad made on Sunday for a “political solution” to the 22-month conflict as “one-sided”.
Brahimi attacked Assad’s plan to keep fighting rebel “terrorists” and ignore opposition groups tied to them, in comments to the BBC.
He also questioned the decades-long rule by Assad’s family, saying that in Syria, where Assad took over from his long-ruling father in 2000, “what people are saying is that one family ruling for 40 years is a little bit too long.”
Syria’s pro-government Al-Watan newspaper denounced Brahimi as a “pawn” of the West, and Syria’s foreign ministry accused him of “flagrant bias for those parties known to be conspiring against Syria and its people”.
Before the spat, there had been some hope that Friday’s talks in Geneva could produce a clearer idea of how to move towards a transitional government in Syria, where the UN estimates more than 60,000 people have died since the outbreak of the revolt against Assad’s regime in March 2011.
Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said meanwhile the United States was increasingly focused on how to secure Syria’s chemical weapons if Assad falls from power.
“I think the greater concern right now is what steps does the international community take to make sure that when Assad comes down, that there is a process and procedure to make sure we get our hands on securing those sites,” he said in Washington on Thursday.
“That, I think, is the greater challenge right now.”
While the US government has issued stern warnings to Damascus against resorting to chemical weaponry in its war with rebel forces, Panetta said the greater risk might be a chaotic vacuum if Assad is toppled.