AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
Published — Saturday 12 January 2013
Last update 12 January 2013 8:20 pm
DAMASCUS: Fighters yesterday overran Taftanaz airbase in north Syria, a watchdog said, marking a significant advance that came as peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met with top US and Russian officials on the Syrian crisis.
“The fighting at Taftanaz military airport ended at 11 a.m. (0900 GMT) and the base is entirely in Free Syrian Army’s hands,” said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman.
The base soon thereafter, however, came under aerial attack by government fighter jets, the Britain-based Observatory said in a later statement. “Warplanes are bombing Taftanaz military airport in an attempt to destroy it,” it said. “This is the largest airbase to be seized since the revolt began” nearly 22 months ago, Abdel Rahman said.
The fighters have previously taken control of the relatively small Hamdan airport in Albu Kamal on the Iraqi border in the east, and the Marj Al-Sultan military airport in Damascus province.
The assault on Taftanaz was led by fighters from the Al-Nusra Front, Ahrar Al-Sham and Islamic Vanguard battalions, as well as other groups, the Observatory said.
Many soldiers and officers fled the base at dawn, while the total number of casualties for each side was not immediately available. The fighters 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 that are no longer in working condition, the Observatory said.
News of the capture of the airbase came as Brahimi, the UN-Arab League special envoy on Syria was meeting in Geneva with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and US Undersecretary of State William Burns.
The discussions are taking place a day after Syria accused Brahimi of “flagrant bias,” casting doubt on whether he could stay on as international mediator.
Syria’s pro-government Al-Watan newspaper denounced Brahimi as a “pawn” of the West, and Syria’s Foreign Ministry accused him of “flagrant bias for those parties known to be conspiring against Syria and its people.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said meanwhile the United States was increasingly focused on how to secure Syria’s chemical weapons if Assad falls from power.
“I think the greater concern right now is what steps does the international community take to make sure that when Assad comes down, that there is a process and procedure to make sure we get our hands on securing those sites,” he said.
Meanwhile, the number of Syrian refugees registered in neighboring countries and North Africa has jumped by more than 100,000 in the past month to over 600,000, the UN’s refugee body said yesterday.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said that as of Thursday, 612,134 Syrians had either been registered as refugees in neighboring countries or were in the process of being registered, up from 509,550 announced on December 11.
“This is a sharp increase,” UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said in Geneva.