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Syrian rebels have captured military air base, says NGO

Syrian rebels fighting to depose President Assad are reported to have seized a key air base near the border with Turkey. Rebel fighters are also said to be scoring successes in Assad's Alawite heartland.

Rebels have captured the Mannagh Military Airport in the northern province of Aleppo after a months-long battle, the opposition activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Tuesday.

The air base is situated on the road between Aleppo and the Turkish city of Gaziantep.

"The airport has been fully liberated. The remnants of the Assad gangs are now being chased," said a statement issued by nine groups which took part in the operation. They include the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and the hardline Islamist Tawhid Brigades.

Mohammad Nour, an activist with the Sham News Network, an opposition monitoring group, said the air base had already mostly fallen into rebel hands over the past two months. He said that on Monday a suicide bomber destroyed the command headquarters, still guarded by some 70 pro-government forces, completing the takeover.

"Most of the remaining defenders were killed in the suicide attack. The remainder fled on three tanks, one of which the rebels destroyed," Nour said.

Rebel groups had been besieging Mannagh air base for some eight months in a bid to stop the Syrian regime from using warplanes to strike areas held by the opposition.

The capture, if confirmed, would be of symbolic importance for the rebels following a series of defeats in central Syria.

Villages seized

Elsewhere in Syria, unconfirmed reports by opposition activists say rebel fighters are moving in on President Bashar al-Assad's hometown of Qardaha. The region is a stronghold of the president's minority Alawite sect, which has controlled Syria since the 1960s.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 12 rebels and 19 Assad loyalists were killed on Sunday during fighting in the rugged terrain. Rebels are said to have captured a number of villages on the northern tip of the Alawite Mountains, east of the port city of Latakia.

More than 100,000 people have died since the uprising against President Assad erupted in 2011.

Reports from Syria cannot be independently verified, as international journalists are mostly banned from entering conflict zones.

tj/ipj (Reuters, AFP)