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Key air base overrun by Syria rebels

Islamist-led seizure largest since revolution began

AFP-JIJI, AP

In a significant advance, Syrian rebels overran Taftanaz Air Base in the country’s north Friday, a watchdog said, as talks between the U.N. peace envoy and U.S. and Russian officials failed to make any headway on ending the conflict.

“The fighting at Taftanaz military airport ended at 11 a.m. and the base is entirely in rebel hands,” said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights head Rami Abdel Rahman.

Soon afterward, the base was raided by government jets, the Britain-based Observatory said.

Capturing Taftanaz is an important gain for the rebels, who control vast swaths of the north and east and are battling President Bashar Assad’s forces in most major cities and on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus.

“This is the largest air base to be seized since the revolt began” nearly 22 months ago, Abdel Rahman said by phone.

The rebels had previously taken the relatively small Hamdan Airport in Albu Kamal on the border with Iraq in the east, and Marj al-Sultan military airport in Damascus Province.

The Taftanaz assault was led by jihadist fighters from the Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and Islamic Vanguard battalions, as well as other rebel groups, the Observatory said. It said eight soldiers and two regime militiamen were killed, as were seven rebels. Many soldiers and officers fled the base at dawn.

Government forces managed to evacuate most of the 60 helicopters deployed there, leaving behind 20 that were no longer serviceable, the Observatory said.

The news came as U.N.-Arab League special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns in Geneva.

After more than five hours of talks, Brahimi expressed an urgent need to end the conflict, but reported no major progress.

Friday’s discussions came after Syria accused Brahimi of “flagrant bias,” casting doubt on his future as international mediator.

Damascus lashed out at the veteran Algerian diplomat for describing as “one-sided” proposals that Assad made last Sunday for a “political solution.”

In comments to the BBC, Brahimi attacked Assad’s plan to keep fighting rebel “terrorists” and ignore opposition groups tied to them. There had been hope that Friday’s talks could produce a clearer idea of how to move toward a transitional government in Syria, where the U.N. estimates more than 60,000 people have died since the March 2011 outbreak of the revolt.

The Observatory put Friday’s provisional death toll at 62 — 23 soldiers, 22 civilians and 17 rebels.

Despite wintry conditions, thousands of Syrians staged nationwide protests denouncing “death camps,” referring to refugees suffering in tent settlements in neighboring states, which last week were battered by storms.

The U.N. said 612,134 Syrians have been registered as refugees in the region or are in the process of being recorded, a sharp rise from the 509,550 announced Dec. 11.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Adrian Edwards said the first week of 2013 had “seen a surge in new arrivals” to Jordan, where more than 1,100 Syrians cross the border every day. Nearly 200,000 were registered in Lebanon, more than 153,000 in Turkey, 69,300 in Iraq, 13,000 in Egypt and over 5,000 in North Africa.

Elsewhere, more than 50 countries backed a call for the U.N. Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, a move that would open the way for war crimes prosecutions.

A draft of the letter said the situation in Syria should be referred to the Hague-based war crimes tribunal “without exceptions and irrespective of the alleged perpetrators,” citing the findings of a U.N. expert panel documenting summary executions, torture and sexual violence that have occurred since the uprising began.