BEIRUT (AP) — Islamic State fighters captured a major military air base in northeastern Syria on Sunday, eliminating the last government-held outpost in a province otherwise dominated by the jihadi group, activists and state media said.
Tabqa airfield — home to several warplane squadrons, helicopters, tanks, artillery, and ammunition bunkers — is the third military base in the area to fall to the extremists since last month. Those victories are part of the Islamic State group's aggressive push to consolidate its hold on northern and eastern provinces, while also expanding the boundaries of its self-styled caliphate straddling the Syria-Iraq border.
The jihadis launched their long-anticipated offensive last week to seize the sprawling Tabqa facility, located some 45 kilometers (25 miles) from the extremists' stronghold in the city of Raqqa along the Euphrates River.
After several failed efforts to breach the walls in recent days, Islamic State fighters managed to punch through and storm the air base Sunday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Government warplanes carried out waves of airstrikes to try to beat back the attack, but those ultimately proved unable to stem the assault.
"Some of the Syrian regime troops pulled out, and now the Islamic State is in full control of Tabqa," said Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman. "This makes Raqqa province the first to fully fall out of government hands."
Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, also said the extremist group was in control of Tabqa.
The SANA state news agency confirmed that the government had lost the air base, saying troops "are successfully reassembling after evacuating the airport." It said that the military was still "striking terrorist groups, inflicting heavy losses on them."
The government had made significant investments in both weapons and manpower to try to hold onto Tabqa, making its fall both a symbolic and a strategic blow.
Islamic State fighters had been closing in on the base for weeks. When the fight finally came, it was bloody.
The Observatory said that at least 100 Islamic State fighters were killed and another 300 wounded in the fighting, numbers that exclude casualties from the final assault. It said more than 170 government troops also were killed Sunday alone, and there were reports that another 150 may have been captured.
Tabqa is the latest in a string of bases to fall to the Islamic State group as it strengthens its hold over a vast swath of territory in northern and eastern Syria. Last month, the extremists overran the sprawling Division 17 military base in Raqqa, killing at least 85 soldiers. Two weeks later, they seized the nearby Brigade 93 base after days of heavy fighting.
The group's trademark brutality was on full display after those victories. They killed army commanders and pro-government militiamen, decapitating them before putting their bodies and heads on display. The Observatory reported similar acts following the fall of Tabqa on Sunday.
In the neighboring province of Deir el-Zour, Islamic State fighters also have overwhelmed outposts held by Syrian rebels, systematically picking off towns and villages one by one through force and intimidation.
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