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Syrian regime loses last army post in Idlib to rebels

Al-Qaeda-linked forces advance under cover of sandstorm, ridding major northwestern province of government forces

Rebel fighters fire a heavy machine gun during clashes with Syrian pro-government forces on the front facing Deir al-Zoghb, a government-held area in the northwestern Idlib province, on August 31, 2015. (AFP Photo/Omar Haj Kadour)
Rebel fighters fire a heavy machine gun during clashes with Syrian pro-government forces on the front facing Deir al-Zoghb, a government-held area in the northwestern Idlib province, on August 31, 2015. (AFP Photo/Omar Haj Kadour)

BEIRUT (AP) — Insurgents led by al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria captured a northwestern army air base Wednesday after a two-year siege, leaving the entire province of Idlib free of government forces, state media and an activist group said.

A state television report said government forces at the Abu Zuhour air base “have evacuated their positions and moved to another point.” The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said insurgents, including members of the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, captured the base under the cover of a sandstorm and forced government forces out of their last post in Idlib province, which borders Turkey.

The local Coordination Committees posted a photo on its Facebook page it said showed Nusra Front fighters standing in front of warplanes inside the base. Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Observatory, said militants were aided by a Mideast-wide sandstorm that reduced visibility.

The capture of Abu Zuhour is the latest in a series of setbacks for government forces in Idlib province. Earlier this year, militant groups captured the provincial capital, also named Idlib, as well as other towns and villages.

Insurgents now control nearly all the province, except for the predominantly Shiite villages of Foua and Kfarya, which pro-government militiamen hold.

Idlib is the second of Syria’s 14 provinces to be free of Syrian government forces. Raqqa in the north is held by the extremist Islamic State group.

Syria’s conflict has killed more than 250,000 people since March 2011.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.

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