Rebels seize key base as talks held in Geneva

Rebels seize key base as talks held in Geneva

BEIRUT - Agence France-Presse
Rebels seize key base as talks held in Geneva

AP Photo

Syrian rebels overran Taftanaz airbase in north Syria, a watchdog said, marking a significant advance that came as U.N. peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met with top U.S. and Russian officials to discuss the Syrian crisis.

“The fighting at Taftanaz military airport ended and the base is entirely in rebel hands,” said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Director Rami Abdel Rahman. However, the base soon thereafter came under aerial attack by government fighter jets, the Britain-based Observatory said in a statement. “Warplanes are bombing Taftanaz military airport in an attempt to destroy it,” it said.

The capture of the base marks an important advance for the rebels, who control vast swathes of Syria’s north and east and are battling President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in most major cities, including on the outskirts of Damascus. “This is the largest airbase to be seized since the revolt began,” Abdel Rahman said. The Taftanaz air base in northern Idlib province is considered the biggest field in the country’s north for helicopters used to bomb rebel-held areas.

The rebels have previously taken control of the relatively small Hamdan airport in Albu Kamal on the Iraqi border in the east, as well as the Marj al-Sultan military airport in Damascus province.

Soldiers fled at dawn

The assault on Taftanaz was led by jihadist fighters from the Al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and Islamic Vanguard battalions, as well as other rebel groups, the Observatory said.

Many soldiers and officers fled the base at dawn. The rebels seized several military vehicles and a major weapons depot. Government forces, however, managed to pull out most of the 60 helicopters deployed at the airbase, leaving behind 20 choppers, the Observatory said. News of the capture of the airbase came as Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League special envoy on Syria, met in Geneva with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns.

Brahimi held separate talks with Bogdanov and Burns at the UN’s European headquarters. All three then met together behind closed doors. A U.S. official said they would focus on “creating the conditions to advance a political solution, specifically a transitional governing body” agreed at Geneva talks in June.

“The United State’s position is clear: al-Assad has lost all legitimacy and must step aside to enable a political solution and a democratic transition that meets the aspirations of the Syrian people,” the U.S. official said.

Before the meeting, Bogdanov gave no indication Russia would abandon its insistence that al-Assad must not be forced out by external powers and that his exit cannot be a precondition for a Syrian political dialogue. Russia is “eagerly awaiting bringing the agreements reached in Geneva to life without damaging the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and without violating the right of the Syrian people to choose their own leaders,” Bogdanov told Russia Today television.

Compiled from AFP, AP and Reuters stories by the Daily News staff.