Syrian rebels, army clash at air base as missile launched

Rebels trying to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime battled army troops inside an air base in the north today as government forces fought opposition strongholds near the seat of his government in Damascus.
A Free Syrian Army member besieging Taftanaz air base near Idlib, aims his weapon on Wednesday. Rebels entered the strategic base late Wednesday, and continued fighting with regime loyalists on Thursday, according to activists. (Muhammad Najdet Qadour/Shaam News Network/Handout/Reuters)

Rebels trying to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime battled army troops inside an air base in the north today as government forces fought opposition strongholds near the seat of his government in Damascus.

In Brussels, a NATO official said the alliance on Wednesday detected the launch of an unguided, short-range ballistic missile in the country, which is embroiled in a civil war that has killed more than 60,000 people in nearly 22 months.

The official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in line with the alliance's rules, also said Assad's forces fired ballistic missiles at opposition-held areas twice earlier this month. The official said all the missiles were fired from inside Syria at unconfirmed targets in the north.

The alliance has condemned the use of such missiles, saying it disregards the lives of the Syrian people.

Syrian state-run SANA news agency said army troops were battling rebel units in several provinces around the country and in the suburbs of Damascus. The agency claimed troops were "inflicting heavy losses on the terrorists and destroying their weapons and ammunition."

Rebels capture large areas along northern border

The Syrian government refers to rebels as "terrorists" out to destroy the country and claims they are supported by Arab Gulf countries and the West.

In recent weeks, rebels have captured large areas in the north along Syria's border with Turkey and in towns and villages around Damascus. Opposition fighters also have overrun several military bases, seizing weapons and ammunition from government forces, which outgun rebels with their fighter jets and helicopter gunships.

The Britain-based opposition activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels entered the Taftanaz air base in northern Idlib province late Wednesday and the two sides were still fighting on Thursday. Rebels have battled army troops for weeks for control of the Taftanaz base, where helicopters and war planes take off on missions to bomb rebel-held areas around the country.

Regime jets strike opposition stronghold

On Thursday, government jets struck rebel positions within Taftanaz base, the Observatory said. Airstrikes also hit eastern Ghouta district, an opposition stronghold near Damascus where rebels have been staging an offensive on the capital.

The Observatory said the rebel assault was led by fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, an Islamist extremist group which fights among the Syrian rebels.

The U.S. has designated the group as a terrorist organization and says it is affiliated to al-Qaeda.

The Syrian opposition and fighters on the ground have repeatedly asked their backers in the West for anti-aircraft missiles to fight Assad's deadly airpower.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, Foreign Secretary William Hague says Britain plans to propose a loosening of European Union sanctions to keep pressure on the Syrian regime. The move would give Britain more flexibility to arm moderate Syrian rebels if the situation there continues to deteriorate.

Hague also announced a £2 million pound ($3.1 million Cdn) increase in non-lethal aid to Syrian opposition groups.