BEIRUT –- Syrian rebels seized a government missile defense base near the northern city of Aleppo on Friday that had been the source of regular attacks on surrounding villages, activists said.
Free Syrian Army rebels and an Al Qaeda-linked group called Al Nusra Front surrounded the base early Friday and fought with soldiers for hours, activists said. They overran the base around dawn, killing dozens of troops and taking others hostage, said Abu Firas, spokesman for the Revolutionary Council for Aleppo and Its Suburbs.
“We don’t distinguish between the groups Jubhat al Nusra and the other militias, as long as everyone is working toward one goal of ousting the regime,” Abu Firas said.
Video purportedly recorded shortly after the battle shows multiple missiles pointing in various directions. Opposition activist Abu Hisham said they were S-75 surface-to-air missiles.
“These missiles of Bashar Assad were pointed at our people,” the videographer said, referring to the Syrian president.
Rebels took weapons from the base, including antiaircraft machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and armored vehicles, he said.
But shortly after the rebels seized the base, government fighter jets attacked it, destroying the missiles, Abu Firas said.
The rebels retreated to the outskirts of the base, he said.
Despite Western opposition to Assad’s government, the United States and other countries have cited the presence of extremists among the rebels as a reason not to supply the Syrian insurgents with weapons.
They have repeatedly cited concern that heavy weaponry might fall into the wrong hands.
The capture of the base also plays into the fear that extremists could acquire Syria’s chemical and biological weapons, particularly if the government collapses and loses control of them.
Neighboring Jordan’s King Abdullah II worries that such weapons could be seized by Al Qaeda or other militants, primarily the Iran-allied Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The U.S. has sent about 150 troops to Jordan, largely special operations forces, to bolster the kingdom’s military capabilities in the event Syria’s civil war escalates.
Syria is believed to have one of the world’s largest chemical weapons programs, and the government has said it might use the weapons against external threats, though not against Syrians.
Western powers — and many Syrians — worry that Islamist extremists are playing an increasing role in the conflict.
Little is known about Al Nusra Front, which began claiming attacks in Syria this year in postings on militant forums often used by Al Qaeda. Neither group has officially acknowledged a link to the other, but analysts say the militia’s tactics, rhetoric and use of Al Qaeda forums point to an affiliation.
Syrian activists say the group is known for fighting on the front lines in harsh battles and goes out of its way not to appear in activist videos.
“Most brigades want to be filmed in operations so they can get support, but Al Nusra doesn’t allow any filming,” an Aleppo activist said via the Skype communications system.
Meanwhile, the fallout deepened from a Syrian passenger jet’s forced landing in neighboring Turkey, as Russia said the plane traveling from Moscow to Damascus was carrying radar parts that were being transported legally.
Russia has been Assad’s main supporter and ally, shielding him from international sanctions over his crackdown on the uprising.
Turkey’s prime minister has said the plane was carrying ammunition and military equipment for the Syrian Defense Ministry.
Turkish fighter jets intercepted the Airbus A320 on Wednesday amid heightened tension between Turkey and Syria, fueled by recent cross-border shelling from Syria that killed five Turkish civilians.
Tension continued Friday as Turkey’s military scrambled two F-16 fighter jets after a Syrian attack helicopter was seen over a Syrian border town where rebels and Assad government troops have been clashing for days, Turkey’s Dogan news agency reported.
Activists say more than 32,000 people have been killed in the conflict, which has evolved from a peaceful uprising to a brutal battle between rebels and government troops. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled the fighting to neighboring countries.