BEIRUT (AP) — A fierce battle for control of a Syrian military base near a northern, opposition-held city has killed 24 rebels so far but the government troops have managed to hold on to the complex, activists said Friday.
Opposition fighters battling to topple President Bashar Assad's government launched an assault on the base northeast of the city of Raqqa on Wednesday, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Sporadic clashes were still underway Friday for the facility, known as Base 17 because it houses the Syrian army's 17th Brigade, said the Observatory's chief, Rami Abdurrahman.
Since Syria's crisis erupted in March 2011, the rebels have gained control of much of the territory in the country's north along the border with Turkey, but in February, Raqqa became the first city to fall entirely into rebel hands.
In recent months, however, Assad's troops have gained the upper hand on the battlefield, pushing rebel fighters out of a string of opposition strongholds around the capital, Damascus.
Earlier this week, the army also took two towns and a military base outside the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest urban center that has been carved up between government- and rebel-held areas since last year.
And on Tuesday, government troops captured the key town of Qara near the Lebanese border during an ongoing offensive in the mountainous western region of Syria. The operation is aimed at cutting off rebel supply lines to Lebanon and cementing Assad's hold on a key corridor from the capital to the Mediterranean coast.
Syria's conflict, now well in its third year, has killed 120,000 people. The crisis started as a peaceful uprising against Assad but deteriorated into all-out civil war after a brutal government crackdown on dissent.
In the past year, the fighting has taken increasingly sectarian overtones, pitting mostly Sunni Muslim rebels against Assad's ruling elite that is predominantly made up of Alawaites, an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam.
Also Friday, government troops shelled the village of Bebela, killing five people, including a child, the Observatory said. The village lies along the region's main north-south highway, between two towns where intense clashes were also underway.
In a bid to secure the highway and cut rebel supply lines, Assad's forces pressed ahead with their week-long offensive in the Qalamoun hills.
Rebel forces in the area are led by fighters from two al-Qaida-linked groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, the Observatory said.
In the central city of Homs, Syria's third-largest, rebels fired mortar rounds at government positions but hit a central hotel, killing one man and wounding six on Friday, the state SANA news agency said.