Wednesday 17 January 2018

Syria rebels take over army base

Free Syrian Army fighters take their positions close to a military base (AP)
Free Syrian Army fighters take their positions close to a military base (AP)

Syrian rebels have taken full control of a sprawling military base after a two-day battle that has left at least 35 government troops dead, an activist group said.

It was the second major base captured in the country's north by the rebels, who have been making inroads further south towards Damascus, the seat of the government they are fighting to overthrow.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the battle for the sprawling Sheik Suleiman military base, near the northern city of Aleppo, ended when the rebels took over the site's main compound and warehouses that housed a military research centre. They had first breached the base on Sunday afternoon, after weeks of fighting with soldiers loyal to President Bashar Assad.

The Observatory relies on a network of activists inside Syria. It did not give figures on rebel casualties from the battle.

Also in Aleppo - the country's largest city and commercial centre - four mortar rounds hit the predominantly Kurdish neighbourhood of Sheik Maksoud, killing 11 and wounding a dozen. The dead included three children and two women, the Observatory said.

The conflict started nearly 21 months ago as an uprising against Assad, whose family has ruled the country for four decades. It quickly morphed into a civil war, with rebels taking up arms to fight back against a bloody crackdown by the government. According to activists, more than 40,000 people have been killed since March 2011.

The Observatory also reported clashes and shelling in several Damascus suburbs, including Aqraba, near the international airport where fighting started early this month. The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said five people were killed during clashes between troops and rebels in the Damascus suburb of Rankous.

Meanwhile, US defence secretary Leon Panetta said the Syrian government seems to have slowed preparations for the possible use of chemical weapons against rebel targets. Last week US officials said there was evidence that Syrian forces had begun preparing sarin, a nerve agent, for possible use in bombs.

Mr Panetta told reporters flying with him from Washington to Kuwait that the threat was no longer escalating, although he was not specific about any Syrian military preparations. He said the US has not seen "anything new indicating any aggressive steps to move forward".

Mr Panetta said he would like to believe Assad "got the message" when other countries warned against using chemical weapons, but he is still concerned that if "the regime is threatened with collapse, they might resort to these kinds of weapons".

Press Association

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