Islamic State fighters have captured a major military air base in northeastern Syria. The facility was the last government-held outpost in a province otherwise dominated by the Islamist group.
After several failed attempts to breach the facility in recent days, fighters from the "Islamic State" (IS) managed to storm the Tabqa air base Sunday, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The SANA state news agency also confirmed that the government had lost the air base, saying troops "are successfully reassembling after evacuating the airport and are continuing to strike precise blows at the terrorist groups in the area."
The battle for the airfield has left at least 346 extremists dead and hundreds more wounded since the offensive was launched on Tuesday, according to the Observatory. It said more than 170 government troops also were killed Sunday alone. There were reports that another 150 may have been captured.
The airfield - home to several warplane squadrons, helicopters, tanks, artillery, and ammunition bunkers - is located some 45 kilometers (25 miles) from the extremists' stronghold in the city of Raqqa along the Euphrates River.
Tabqa is the latest in a string of bases to fall to the Islamic State group as it expands the boundaries of its self-styled caliphate straddling the Syria-Iraq border. Their steady push in Syria, as well as their lightning advance across Iraq since June, has brought under their control a stretch of territory from Syria's northern border with Turkey as far as the outskirts of Iraq's capital Baghdad.
The Islamic State's offensive has been aided by large quantities of advanced US-made weaponry and armoured vehicles, which it has seized from fleeing Iraqi forces, and an influx of recruits.
Regional efforts against IS
On Sunday, Arab foreign ministers met in Saudi Arabia to discuss the rise of IS. The Saudi state news agency SPA said the closed-door talks took place in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, attended by the foreign ministers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, as well as an advisor to Jordan's foreign minister.
The ministers agreed on "the need to seriously work to deal with these crises and challenges to preserve security and stability in Arab countries," said the news agency.
Meanwhile, Iraq's prime minister-designate Haider al-Abadi held talks with visiting Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Sunday to get the neighboring Shiite country's support against Sunni militants.
"Abadi pointed to the presence of many dangers posed in the region as a result of the existence of the terrorist gang Islamic State which requires regional and international efforts to exterminate this terrorist organization," his office said in a statement after the talks with Zarif.
Zarif said that Tehran had no intentions of sending its soldiers to Iraq.
hc/jr (AP, AFP, dpa)