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Syrian rebels push offensive for major airport

 Syrian refugee family is seen at their tent in a refugee camp near Azaz, north of Aleppo province, Syria, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013. (AP Photo / Manu Bra...
 A Syrian refugee woman is seen in a refugee camp near Azaz, north of Aleppo province, Syria, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013. (AP Photo / Manu Brabo)
 A Syrian refugee woman is seen between a line of tents in a refugee camp near Azaz, north of Aleppo province, Syria, Sunday, Feb 17, 2013. (AP Photo ...

Mideast Syria

Syrian refugee family is seen at their tent in a refugee camp near Azaz, north of Aleppo province, Syria, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013. (AP Photo / Manu Bra...

Mideast Syria

A Syrian refugee woman is seen in a refugee camp near Azaz, north of Aleppo province, Syria, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013. (AP Photo / Manu Brabo)

APTOPIX Mideast Syria

A Syrian refugee woman is seen between a line of tents in a refugee camp near Azaz, north of Aleppo province, Syria, Sunday, Feb 17, 2013. (AP Photo ...

Syrian rebels captured a government checkpoint on the main road to the country's second-largest airport Monday as opposition fighters pressed their campaign to capture the strategic facility in the northern city of Aleppo, activists said.
The rebels launched a major attack on the airport and the adjacent Nairab military airfield last week, and have since overrun the main army base protecting the area. Control of the airport would provide a significant boost for the opposition, and mark a strategic shift in the country's 23-month-old civil war.
The fighting has been raging for weeks, but it was only in early February after the rebels captured the strategic Aleppo neighborhood of Sheik Said near the airport, which has been shut down because of the violence, that the offensive gained momentum.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Aleppo Media Center reported that rebels captured the main fuel station on the Nairab base. The Observatory said there were several regime casualties and five rebels, including foreign fighters, killed.
The fight for the international airport in Aleppo, Syria's largest city and commercial hub, highlights the importance that both sides in the conflict place on controlling strategic assets that could provide an edge in the larger fight for the country.
Last week, rebels seized a hydroelectric dam and a major oil field, cutting off President Bashar Assad's regime from key resources necessary for its long term survival. Rebels also seized an air defense base and fought near two other army installations in Syria's north.
Aleppo's airport is crucial in the broader fight for the city itself. Rebels launched an offensive on Aleppo in July, and quickly seized several neighborhoods. Since then, the fighting has settled into a bloody stalemate that has destroyed entire districts, killed thousands and forced thousands more to flee their homes.
Determined to hang onto the city, Assad's regime has thrown troops and resources into the fight. But his army has faced difficulties in sending reinforcements to Aleppo since October, when rebels captured the strategic town of Maaret al-Numan, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of Aleppo. Maaret al-Numan is on the highway that links Damascus with Aleppo.
The regime has not been able to fly supplies since the Aleppo airport closed weeks ago due to the fighting.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, said over the past two weeks large army reinforcements were able to reach the town of Safira, near the city of Aleppo, after securing a desert road that links the central province of Hama with northern Syria.
He said the reinforcements, including dozens of vehicles and thousands of troops, have not been able to reach Aleppo because of heavy fighting in the town of Tal Aran between the city's international airport and Safira.
Safira is home to military production facilities that rebels have been trying to capture in recent past weeks with no luck.
"The regime is doing all it can to open a road to Aleppo," Abdul-Rahman said.
Abdul-Rahman, whose group relies on a network of activists around the country, said as the army convoys pushed north, more than 200 members of al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra were killed over the past two weeks in clashes with the reinforcements. The Obama administration designated Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization in December.
The Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees activist group also said government forces were shelling southern neighborhoods of the capital, Damascus, mostly around the rebel-held Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk. There has been intense fighting in recent weeks in southern and northeastern districts of the capital.
In Brussels, European Union foreign ministers are wrestling with the divisive issue of whether to ease the arms embargo against Syria so military aid can be funneled to the rebels fighting Assad.
An EU official said Britain is lobbying to ease the embargo so munitions could flow, but only to the rebels. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss closed-door deliberations. But several foreign ministers said on their way into the meeting that they were opposed to such a move.
That view will be bolstered by a new report Monday from a U.N.-appointed panel that said Syria's civil war is becoming increasingly sectarian and the behavior of both sides is growing more and more radicalized. The report urged the international community to curb the supply of weapons, and anti-government forces to part with foreign fighters.
The report said government forces and affiliated militia committed crimes against humanity such as murder, torture, rape, enforced disappearance and other inhumane acts. It added that anti-government armed groups have committed war crimes, including murder, torture, hostage-taking and attacking protected objects.
The U.N. says nearly 70,000 people have been killed in Syria's conflict since the revolt against Assad began in March 2011.
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Associated Press writers Geir Moulson in Berlin and Don Melvin in Brussels contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-10-22 09:45 GMT+08:00