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Battle envelops Syrian airbase ahead of rebel unity talks

Fighting has been raging around a key Syrian airbase on the eve of talks to unite the opposition. State media claims that Taftanaz - a crucial strategic objective of the rebels - is being defended successfully.

The state-run news agency SANA said on Saturday that government troops were successfully withstanding an attack on a government air facility by rebel soldiers.

Opposition fighters launched an assault against Taftanaz airbase, in the province of Idlib, early on Saturday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain, reported that rocket-propelled grenades and mortar shells had been used in the attack. The Syrian Revolution General Commission, based in the country itself, said an operation "to liberate the Taftanaz airbase" had begun.

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The airport, used by government forces to launch airstrikes against rebel forces, represents a key strategic target for opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad. It is located close to the embattled city of Aleppo.

However, the state-run news agency SANA said later on Saturday that the rebel attack was being repelled.

"The armed forces killed a large number of terrorists and destroyed their vehicles which were equipped with machine guns, in addition to destroying a weapons carrier," SANA said.

Umbrella rebel leadership sought

The fighting came on the eve of talks in Qatar on Sunday aimed at uniting the country's opposition. At those negotiations, the United States was expected to push for a new umbrella organisation to bring opponents of the Assad regime together.

Long-time dissident Riad Seif has been suggested as the possible head of a new government-in-exile, currently being dubbed the Syrian National Initiative.

Airstrikes near Damascus

Syrian government forces were also reported to have intensified airstrikes on Saturday against targets in eastern Ghouta, a rebel stronghold in the suburbs of Damascus.

"Planes are carrying (out) heavy aerial bombardments after failed attempts by ground troops to regain control of parts of the Damascus suburb of Ouma, which was seized earlier by rebels," Haytham Abdallah told the DPA news agency.

Most foreign journalists are barred from entering Syria, making confirmation of most reports difficult. Opposition reports put the death toll for Saturday in Syria at 90.

rc/slk (AFP, Reuters, dpa)

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