BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels attacked a sprawling military air base in the country's northwest on Saturday, while opposition forces assaulted a string of army checkpoints and positions in the south, activists said.
The raids follow nearly two weeks of advances by Syrian troops, mostly in the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, and in areas near the Lebanese border in the central province of Homs.
In Moscow, Syria's Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi denied recent U.S. charges that Syrian troops used chemical weapons against the rebels, saying Washington had leveled the accusation as a result of the latest victories by the army.
"The American hysteria about the use of chemical weapons was caused by the success of the Syrian Arab Army in striking terrorists," al-Zoubi was quoted by state TV as saying. The government refers to rebels as "terrorists."
The Obama administration said Thursday that intelligence indicates that government forces likely used the nerve gas sarin in two attacks.
Washington's declaration was its strongest on the topic so far, although the administration said it was still working to pin down definitive proof of the use of chemical weapons. It held back from saying Damascus had crossed what President Barack Obama has said would be a "red line" prompting tougher action in Syria.
The rebels accuse regime forces of firing chemical agents on at least four occasions since December, killing 31 people in the worst of the attacks. They say world inaction would only encourage Assad to use the weapons on a larger scale.
The regime countered that it was the rebels who fired chemical weapons — pointing to their capture of a chemical factory last year as proof of their ability to do so.
In Saturday's fighting at the Abu Zuhour air base in northwestern Idlib province, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there were casualties on both sides. The base has been under siege from the rebels for months.
The Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees said the Syrian air force conducted several air raids during the fighting to ease pressure on government troops inside the air base.
The state-run news agency SANA quoted a military official as saying the troops repelled the attack and inflicted "great losses" on the attackers.
Rebels control much of Idlib province, which borders Turkey, although government forces still hold some areas, including the provincial capital of the same name.
Elsewhere, the Aleppo Media Center said rebels had entered the Kweiras military air base in Aleppo province and destroyed its operations room. The base has been under siege for months.
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