Islamist rebels consolidate victories with capture of Syria army base in Idlib

Friday 24/04/2015
Recent gains open up strategic route to Latakia province

BEIRUT - Al-Qaeda's Syria affiliate and rebel allies overran a regime military base in Idlib on Monday, a day after government raids killed 73 civilians in the northwestern province, a monitoring group said.

The capture of Al-Qarmid, southeast of the provincial capital, consolidated a series of victories for the rebel alliance of Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front and other Islamist factions.

"The Al-Qarmid base fell to rebel fighters, and the regime has withdrawn from it," Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

He said the regime stored several tanks and heavy artillery pieces at Al-Qarmid.

Many of those weapons were seized on Monday by the same Islamist coalition that captured the last major government-held city in Idlib province on Saturday.

The fall of Jisr al-Shughur followed the loss of Idlib city last month.

Syrian state television reported that the army had killed "a number of terrorists" in fierce clashes around Al-Qarmid.

But Abdel Rahman said government forces had failed to hold the base despite heavy shelling of rebel positions, and had lost 15 soldiers.

He had no immediate information on rebel casualties.

Early on Monday, Al-Nusra's official Twitter and Facebook accounts published photos of tanks and artillery with the caption: "Inside Al-Qarmid military base: the jihadists' spoils."

The accounts also carried pictures of fiery explosions, that they said were caused by suicide bombers blowing themselves up at checkpoints before the base was stormed.

Abdel Rahman said at least two suicide bombers in cars laden with explosives targeted entrances to the base.

He said forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad still held three other bases in Idlib province and a military airport further east, as well as smaller towns.

But the rebels' recent gains have opened up a strategic assault route to neighbouring Latakia province on the Mediterranean coast, a bastion of the Assad regime.

Since the Saturday capture of Jisr al-Shughur, the regime has launched a spate of air strikes on rebel-held towns in Idlib province that killed at least 73 civilians on Sunday alone.

Abdel Rahman said 19 children and 11 women were among the dead, with the deadliest strike coming in the town of Darkush, near the Turkish border.

Raids there on Sunday hit a marketplace, killing 53 people, including eight children and nine women.

More than 220,000 people have been killed in the conflict in Syria since it began with peaceful protests in March 2011.