Syrian rebels fight at air base; missile detected

Associated Press
In this image taken from video obtained from the Shaam News Network, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, smoke rises due to heavy shelling in Taftanaz, Idlib province, northern Syria, on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network via AP video)
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DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Rebels trying to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime battled army troops inside an air base in the north on Thursday as government forces fought opposition strongholds near the seat of his government in Damascus.

In Brussels, a NATO official said the alliance on Wednesday detected the launch of an unguided, short-range ballistic missile in the country, which is embroiled in a civil war that has killed more than 60,000 people in nearly 22 months.

The official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in line with the alliance's rules, also said Assad's forces fired ballistic missiles at opposition-held areas twice earlier this month. The official said all the missiles were fired from inside Syria at unconfirmed targets in the north.

The alliance has condemned the use of such missiles, saying it disregards the lives of the Syrian people.

Syrian state-run SANA news agency said army troops were battling rebel units in several provinces around the country and in the suburbs of Damascus. The agency claimed troops were "inflicting heavy losses on the terrorists and destroying their weapons and ammunition."

The Syrian government refers to rebels as terrorists out to destroy the country and claims they are supported by Arab Gulf countries and the West.

In recent weeks, rebels have captured large areas in the north along Syria's border with Turkey and in towns and villages around Damascus. Opposition fighters also have overrun several military bases, seizing weapons and ammunition from government forces, which outgun rebels with their fighter jets and helicopter gunships.

The Britain-based opposition activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels entered the Taftanaz air base in northern Idlib province late Wednesday and the two sides were still fighting on Thursday. Rebels have battled army troops for weeks for control of the Taftanaz base, where helicopters and war planes take off on missions to bomb rebel-held areas around the country.

The Observatory said the rebel assault was led by fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, an Islamist extremist group which fights among the Syrian rebels.

The U.S. has designated the group as a terrorist organization and says it is affiliated to al-Qaida.

The Syrian opposition and fighters on the ground have repeatedly asked their backers in the West for anti-aircraft missiles to fight Assad's deadly airpower.

On Thursday, government jets struck rebel positions within Taftanaz base, the Observatory said. Airstrikes also hit eastern Ghouta district, an opposition stronghold near Damascus where rebels have been staging an offensive on the capital.

Also Thursday, nearly 50 Iranians were heading home after being freed by Syrian rebels in a prisoner swap.

Iranian officials told reporters at Tehran's Mehrabad Airport that the flight carrying 48 former Iranian prisoners had left Damascus en route to the Iranian capital. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to brief the media on the issue.

They did not say when the plane is expected to land in Tehran.

The rebels freed 48 Iranian captives on Wednesday in exchange for more than 2,000 prisoners held by Syrian authorities. It was the first major prisoner swap since the uprising began.

A Syrian official said the Iranians left the Damascus Sheraton hotel early in the morning. They were then stranded for hours at the Damascus airport by bad weather that has swept the Middle East.

Rebels claimed the captives were linked to Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard, but Tehran has denied that, saying the men were pilgrims visiting Shiite religious sites in Syria. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland described most of the Iranians as "members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard," calling it "just another example of how Iran continues to provide guidance, expertise, personnel, technical capabilities to the Syrian regime."

Iran is one of Assad's main allies, and the Iranians, who were seized outside Damascus in August, were a major bargaining chip for factions trying to bring down his regime

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Surk reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.

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