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IS fighters seize Syrian air base

2014-08-24 17:31

Beirut - Islamic State militants stormed an air base in northeast Syria on Sunday, capturing most of it from government forces after days of fighting over the strategic location, a witness and a monitoring group said.

Fighting raged inside the walls of the Tabqa air base, the Syrian army's last foothold in an area otherwise controlled by IS, which has seized large areas of Syria and Iraq.

In nearby Raqqa city, there was celebratory gunfire and several mosques announced through their loudspeakers that the base had fallen to IS and cheered "God is greatest", a witness in Raqqa told Reuters.

Syrian state television said that after fighting fierce battles, the military was "regrouping" its forces.

Citing a military source, it said there was a "successful evacuation of the airport" and that the army was continuing strikes on "terrorist groups" in the area.

Raqqa, on the Euphrates River, is IS's stronghold in Syria. The group, a radical offshoot of al- Qaeda, has taken three Syrian military bases in the area in recent weeks, boosted by arms seized in Iraq.

At least 100 IS fighters have been killed since Tuesday when the group first attacked the Tabqa base, and more than 300 have been wounded, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group.

Successful evacuation

At least 50 Syrian army soldiers have also died, said the Britain-based Observatory, which tracks the violence in Syria using sources on the ground. Earlier on Sunday the Syrian air force had bombed areas around the base.

The Syrian army sent reinforcements to the base overnight on Friday to fight IS, which controls roughly a third of northern and eastern Syria.

Syria is calculating that the IS push to reshape the Middle East will eventually force a hostile West to deal with President Bashar Assad as the only way to tackle the threat, sources familiar with Syrian government thinking have said.

Elsewhere in Syria, the group withdrew from northern areas it controlled outside the city of Homs on Sunday and retreated east after coming under attack from rival Islamist fighters, the Observatory said.

Fighters from the group withdrew from a headquarters north of Homs on the orders of their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Observatory said, citing sources in areas north of Homs.

They said IS gave up the territory to Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's official wing in Syria.

As well as Nusra Front, Western-backed rebels have also been fighting IS in Syria but have regularly been defeated by the group, which in June declared an "Islamic caliphate" in the territory it controls.

Activists have accused the Syrian army of avoiding confrontations with IS because it has weakened rival rebel groups also battling Assad. 

Reuters
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