Islamic groups take two Syria bases
Islamic fighters have captured two key Syrian army bases in the province of Idlib after two days of intense battles with government troops that killed dozens on both sides, activists said.
The fall of the two bases - Wadi Deif and Hamidiyeh, both near the town of Maaret al-Numan - is a significant blow to the Syrian army, which had managed to hold on to them for more than two years, repelling repeated attacks by an array of opposition groups.
The battles for "these two bases were exhausting the rebel factions", said Hussam Abu Bakr, a spokesman for the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham group, one of the strongest rebel factions in northern Syria. He said his group captured Hamidiyeh base.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Idlib-based activist Mohammed al-Sayid said members of the al Qaida-linked Nusra Front and other rebel factions captured the Wadi Deif base this morning and the nearby Hamidiyeh base in the early afternoon.
Abu Bakr said government forces first withdrew from Wadi Deif to Hamidiyeh and then from Hamidiyeh to the nearby village of Bsida.
He said the rebels then also captured Bsida, forcing government forces to gather in the village of Maar Hattat, which is now being besieged. "There are more deaths and more prisoners every hour," he added.
The Observatory said that at least 31 government soldiers and 12 opposition fighters have been killed in the clashes since Sunday. The group said rebel factions also captured about 15 government troops.
Government forces have suffered enormous losses at the hands of Islamic extremists in northern Syria. Earlier this year, members of the Islamic State group took over a string of government air bases in the northern province of Raqqa, slaughtering scores of Syrian soldiers after seizing them.
A Twitter account run by the Nusra Front in Idlib province said fighters are removing mines from the area after the "Wadi Deif camp was liberated".
Rebels and the Nusra Front control much of the countryside of Idlib province while government forces dominate the provincial capital, also called Idlib.
The capture of the bases came a day after rebels and Nusra Front fighters took over seven government checkpoints around Wadi Deif and Hamidiyeh.
Idlib-based activist Asaad Kanjo said the government still holds the town of Ariha as well as the Qarmid base near the provincial capital.
The Nusra Front has become one of the most powerful factions in Idlib province after it last month defeated the moderate Syria Revolutionaries Front headed by Jamal Maarouf, who has since fled the area.