BEIRUT (AP) — Heavy fighting for control of the international airport in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo and a major military air base nearby has killed some 150 rebels and government soldiers over the past two days, activists said Friday.
The director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said the casualties are almost evenly divided between opposition fighters and troops loyal to President Bashar Assad.
Rebels launched a major attack on Aleppo's civilian airport and the adjacent Nairab military airfield on Wednesday. So far, the rebels have captured most of the "Brigade 80" base, which is responsible for protecting the area, as well as an army checkpoint. The airport itself and the military airfield, which have their own defenses as well, still remain in regime hands.
On Friday, the Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees activist group said rebels and President Bashar Assad's forces were shelling each other in renewed clashes in and around the facilities.
"The operation will continue until we control the airport and Nairab," Col. Abdul-Jabbar al-Aqidi, commander of the rebels' Military Council in Aleppo, told Al-Arabiya TV.
Control of Aleppo international airport and Nairab would be a huge strategic shift for Syria's northeastern region, giving the opposition a potential air hub enabling aid and other flights. But in order to start using the airport, the rebels first would likely have to secure all of the embattled city of Aleppo, where fighting has settled into a bloody stalemate in the streets and squares, as well as much of the surrounding countryside.
The airport would also remain vulnerable to Assad's air force, which regularly bombs areas after the rebels take them.
Although Assad's regime does not appear on the brink of collapse, rebels seeking his ouster have scored a string of strategic victories over the past week, seizing a large dam, a smaller air base in Aleppo province and an oil field in the east. These and other blows have shrunk the portion of the country that Assad effectively governs and could deprive his regime of resources necessary for its survival.
In recent weeks, opposition fighters have also been trying to slowly push their way into the capital, Damascus, primarily from neighborhoods in the northeast and south sides of the city.
On Friday, the Observatory reported shelling and fighting in the Damascus suburbs of Zabadani and Daraya, where a number of soldiers were killed or wounded when their vehicle received a direct hit.
Residents in the capital said they could hear strong booms, mostly from around the northeastern neighborhood of Jobar and nearby areas, where the fighting concentrated in the past days cutting a major highway that cuts through Damascus.
The Observatory said rebels and troops fought in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, that opposition forces control most of it. It added that government forces bombardment of the northern town of Khan Sheikhoun killed 11 people including a child.
The fighting came a day after rebels shot down two warplanes over northern Syria, according to the Observatory.
The continuing violence has led to deteriorating humanitarian conditions for millions of Syrians.
In Geneva, the U.N. World Food program said some 40,000 Syrians have fled the northeastern town of Shadadah. Rebels seized the town and most of a nearby oil filed in days of clashes earlier this week.
Most of the fleeing Syrians went to the provincial capital of Hassakeh province, which produces most of Syria's oil.
WFP spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs told reporters Friday in Geneva that her agency sent 62 metric tons of food, enough for 10,000 people in Shadadah and Hassakeh.
The United Nations says nearly 70,000 people have been killed since Syria's crisis started in March, 2011.
Syria's conflict has posed a dilemma for the international community. While the U.S. and many Arab and European countries have called on Assad to leave power, Russia, China and Iran have continued to back the regime. Russia, which has been Syria's primary arms provider for decades, has said it will continue to carry out its arms contracts.
On Friday, the Customs Investigation Service in Finland said it had intercepted a shipment of spare parts for tanks en route to Syria from Russia.
The service's head, Petri Lounatmaa, said officers confiscated a shipping container on Jan. 8 because it did not have a transit license and contained 9.6 tons of tank parts. The service suspects the shipment violated a European Union ban on weapons exports to the war-torn country and is investigating with other international authorities.
Three captains and a first mate of the ship were questioned and released. The ship was also given permission to sail.
In Turkey, the military on Friday again returned fire at Syria after a shell landed in a forested area inside Turkish territory, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported. There were no casualties from the round, which landed 1 kilometer (500 yards) from the border, across from the Syrian town of Keseb, it said.
A Turkish official could not immediately confirm the report.
The border area has seen fierce fighting in the civil war and tensions have also flared between Turkey and the Syrian regime in the past months after shells fired from Syria landed on the Turkish side. Turkey has been firing back at Syria since five civilians were killed from Syrian shelling in October.
NATO allies Germany, Netherlands and the United States have each deployed six Patriot missile batteries near the border with Syria to protect Turkey from any spillover from the civil war in Syria.
Associated Press writers John Heilprin in Geneva and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.