Beirut: Al Qaeda-linked and other Islamic fighters captured two key Syrian army bases today in the northwestern province of Idlib after two days of intense battles with government troops that killed dozens on both sides, activists said.
The fall of the two bases, Wadi Deif and Hamidiyeh, both located near the town of Maaret al-Numan, is a significant blow to the Syrian army, which had managed to hold on to them for more than two years, repelling repeated attacks by an array of opposition groups.
The battles for "these two bases were exhausting the rebel factions," said Hussam Abu Bakr, a spokesman for the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham group, one of the strongest rebel factions in northern Syria. He said his group captured Hamidiyeh base.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and an Idlib-based activist who goes by the name of Mohammed al-Sayid said members of the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and other rebel factions captured the Wadi Deif base today morning and the nearby Hamidiyeh base in the early afternoon.
Abu Bakr told The Associated Press via Skype that government forces first withdrew from Wadi Deif to Hamidiyeh and then from Hamidiyeh to the nearby village of Bsida.
Then, the rebels captured Bsida, forcing government forces to gather in the village of Maar Hattat, which is now being besieged, said Abu Bakr.
"There are more deaths and more prisoners every hour," he added.
State-run Syrian TV said Syrian armed forces were engaged in fierce battles in Hamidiyeh after "carrying out a redeployment" in the Wadi Deif region this morning. It did not elaborate.
The Observatory said that at least 31 government soldiers and 12 opposition fighters have been killed in the clashes since yesterday.
The group, which tracks the fighting in Syria through a network of activists on the ground, said that rebel factions also captured about 15 government troops.
Government forces have suffered enormous losses at the hands of Islamic extremists in northern Syria.