BEIRUT: Rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have captured a key air base in the northern province of Aleppo after a months-long battle, a monitoring group reported Tuesday.
As the rebels advanced on the base, the regime deployed warplanes to strike several opposition-held towns in Aleppo’s countryside, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (jihadist group) and other opposition groups took total control at dawn today of Minnigh air base,” said the Observatory.
Rebel groups have been fighting loyalists for Minnigh air base for some eight months, as part of a battle in Aleppo province to stop the regime from using warplanes to strike areas in opposition hands.
Rebels laid siege to Minnigh in December 2012, and have tried “dozens of times” before to storm the airport, said the Britain-based Observatory.
The takeover comes a day after a new assault began early Monday, when “a non-Syrian man blew himself up in an armoured vehicle at the entrance to the headquarters of the Minnigh air base,” it said.
Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP the suicide bomber was a Saudi.
After the bombing, jihadist and local rebels attacked and destroyed several army vehicles, killed officers and troops, and seized control of the complex, said the Observatory.
Months earlier the rebels had captured Al-Jarrah military airport and Base 80, also in Aleppo province.
Aleppo international airport and Nayrab and Kwayris air bases are still in loyalist hands.
Minnigh is located north of Aleppo city, near the Turkish border.
As the battle for Minnigh entered its final hours, news broke of air attacks on several rebel-held towns in Aleppo’s countryside.
In Aazaz near the Turkish border, three civilians died when explosive-laden barrels were launched from a warplane, said the Observatory.
The group also reported aerial attacks on Al-Bab and Atarib, also in Aleppo province.
In Aleppo city, army shelling on a market in the opposition-held Sukkari neighbourhood left at least five dead, among them two children and two women, said the Observatory.
But elsewhere in the provincial capital, residents of the rebel-held Tariq al-Bab neighbourhood took to the streets during the night to celebrate the rebel advance on Minnigh, amateur video showed.
Footage distributed by anti-regime activists showed some honking their car horns while others fired live rounds into the air, crying “Allahu akbar!” (God is greatest).
While rebels control large swathes of northern and eastern Syria, much of the centre and south of the country remains squarely in army hands.