Agence France Presse
Published — Friday 11 January 2013
Last update 12 January 2013 9:56 pm
DAMASCUS: Rebels overran Taftanaz airbase in northern Syria on Friday, a watchdog said, in a significant advance as talks between the UN peace envoy and US and Russian officials failed to make headway on ending the conflict.
“The fighting at Taftanaz military airport ended at 11:00 a.m. (0900 GMT) and the base is entirely in rebel hands,” said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman.
Soon afterwards, it was raided by government jets, the Britain-based Observatory said.
“Warplanes are bombing Taftanaz military airport in an attempt to destroy it,” a statement said.
Capturing the base is an important gain for the rebels who control vast swathes of Syria’s north and east and are battling President Bashar Assad’s forces in most major cities and on the outskirts of Damascus.
“This is the largest airbase to be seized since the revolt began” nearly 22 months ago, Abdel Rahman told AFP by phone.
The rebels had previously taken the relatively small Hamdan airport in Albu Kamal on the border with Iraq in the east, and Marj Al-Sultan military airport in Damascus province.
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, and the total number of casualties was not yet known.
The rebels seized several military vehicles and a major weapons cache.
But government forces managed to evacuate most of the 60 helicopters deployed there, leaving behind 20 that are no longer serviceable, the Observatory said.
The news came as UN-Arab League special envoy on Syria Lakhdar Brahimi met Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and US Undersecretary of State William Burns in Geneva.
After more than five hours of talks, Brahimi expressed an urgent need to end the conflict, but reported no major progress.
“We all stressed the need for a speedy end to the bloodshed and the destruction and all forms of violence in Syria,” he told reporters.
The discussions took place a day after Syria accused Brahimi of “flagrant bias,” casting doubt on whether he could stay on as international mediator.
Damascus lashed out at the veteran Algerian diplomat after he described as “one sided” proposals Assad made on Sunday for a “political solution.”
In comments to the BBC, Brahimi attacked Assad’s plan to keep fighting rebel “terrorists” and ignore opposition groups tied to them.
He also questioned the decades-long rule by Assad’s family. Bashar Assad succeeded his late father, Hafez, in 2000, and Brahimi remarked that “what people are saying is that one family ruling for 40 years is a little bit too long.”
Pro-government Al-Watan newspaper denounced him as a “pawn” of the West, and the foreign ministry accused him of “flagrant bias for those parties known to be conspiring against Syria and its people.”
There had been some hope that Friday’s talks could produce a clearer idea of how to move toward a transitional government in Syria, where the UN estimates more than 60,000 people have died since the March 2011 outbreak of the revolt.
Despite wintry conditions, thousands of Syrians stages nationwide Friday demonstrations denouncing “death camps” — referring to refugees suffering in tent settlements in neighboring states, which this week were hit by storms.
The UN said 612,134 Syrians had been registered as refugees in the region or were in the process of being registered, a sharp rise from the 509,550 announced on December 11.
“They left with their wives and children fearing kidnappings, bombings and snipers. They dreamed of a tent safely away from the gangs of Assad, but instead were met with a slow death,” activists wrote on the Facebook page Syrian Revolution 2011.
In the central province of Hama, protesters carried a sign that read: “Bashar, even if you offered us the sun and the moon, we will not give up our revolution!"