By Dominic Evans
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian forces backed by Lebanese Hezbollah militants recaptured an army base in northern Syria from rebels on Sunday, the third day of heavy fighting for the strategic military target which has changed hands three times since Friday.
State media and activists said President Bashar al-Assad's forces were in full control of the 80th Brigade base, which lies just a few hundred meters (yards) north of Aleppo airport on the eastern edge of the disputed city.
They also made gains to the south of the airport, advancing in the town of Tel Arn after a succession of victories over the mainly Islamist rebels holding the south-eastern approaches to Syria's former commercial hub.
Rebels have held roughly half of Aleppo since storming into the city in July last year, holding off a government counter-offensive and consolidating their control over rural areas and the northern border with Turkey.
Assad has focused his fight-back this year on trying to secure the areas around Damascus, the Lebanese border and central Homs region which links the capital with the heartland of his minority Alawite faith in Syria's Mediterranean provinces.
But in recent weeks his forces have also recaptured the town of Safira, southeast of Aleppo, and on Sunday state television said they were in full control of formerly rebel-controlled Tel Arn about 2 miles closer to Aleppo.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the violence through a network of sources, said fighting was continuing in Tel Arn but the army was in almost full control.
In the fighting for the military base, it said at least 63 rebels had been killed since Friday including more than 20 from the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, as well 32 soldiers and pro-Assad militia.
It was not clear how many Shi'ite Hezbollah fighters - who have played a central role in regaining ground for Assad - were killed in the fighting with the Sunni Muslim rebels who had held the 80th Brigade base since February.
If the army is able to strengthen its hold in the area it could lead to the reopening of Aleppo airport to commercial flights, most of which were halted after rebels fired at an airliner there last December.
After 2-1/2 years of war, which started when Assad's forces fired on pro-democracy protests, fighting has settled into a broad stalemate in which more than 100 people are killed every day.
More than 100,000 have died since the start of the conflict, the United Nations says, and millions more fled the country or have been displaced inside Syria.
In some rebel-held districts around Damascus, activists say the army has used siege tactics to starve the population into submission, although there have been local initiatives to ease blockades in some areas.
In the Damascus suburb of Qudsayya, which residents say has been under siege since last month, some food was allowed through army checkpoints on Saturday.
The Observatory said bread, vegetables and flour were taken into Qudsayya, a 15-minute drive north from central Damascus into the Qasioun mountain range, although a local activist group said its members had not seen any shipment of flour.
In the eastern province of Deir al-Zor rebels killed parliamentary member Mejham al-Saho, state news agency SANA said on Sunday. Saho was kidnapped by rebels earlier this year.
(Editing by Peter Graff)
- Unrest, Conflicts & War
- Politics & Government
- northern Syria