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Pro-government forces in Syria break through siege of military base

Pro-government Syrian forces broke a more than year-long siege by Islamic State militants on a northern military air base Tuesday, marking Damascus’ most significant advance since Russian air strikes commenced in September.

In a statement, Syrian President Bashar Assad hailed the “legendary steadfastness and ... sacrifices” of the defenders of the Kweiras air base, east of Aleppo.

But the pro-government forces’ push to overtake extremists at the air base came as a pair of shells struck the coastal loyalist stronghold of Latakia, killing at least 23, according to government and opposition reports. It appeared to be the most deadly attack to date on seaside Latakia, which has been largely spared the worst of the more than four-year Syrian conflict.

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The government described all of the dead in Latakia as civilians. The rockets, which struck in a heavily populated area near Tishreen University, presumably came from Islamist rebels occupying rugged mountain terrain about 25 miles to the east.

Syrian state media showed images of thick smoke rising from several residential buildings in Latakia and the charred husks of vehicles.

Latakia province is the heartland of the minority Alawite sect, to which Assad and many high-ranking security officials belong. Insurgent groups regularly vow to strike the area. Situated along the Mediterranean, it is also where a refurbished air facility is serving as the main base for the Russian air offensive in Syria.

Since the Russian airstrikes began Sept. 30, pro-government Syrian forces have been moving on several fronts, including in Aleppo province. Military advisors from Iran, a key Assad ally, are reportedly playing a major role in the northern thrust.

The city of Aleppo, once Syria’s economic hub, has been split between loyalist and opposition forces for more than three years. Government authorities have vowed to retake the entire city, home to about 2 million people.

Reports from pro-government media indicated that Syrian troops have been pounding Islamic State positions at the Kweiras base and its vicinity with artillery and airstrikes while advancing with tanks. Extremist forces were reported to be in retreat.

The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain, confirmed that government forces had broken the siege and penetrated the battered base. The observatory reported that “violent clashes” were still underway at the compound, about 23 miles east of Aleppo.

“We are inside the base,” a Syrian soldier who took part in the offensive told state television Tuesday, the Associated Press reported.

Islamic State, the breakaway Al Qaeda faction, for more than a year has been using suicide attacks and other tactics in a bid to secure the base. Hundreds of government soldiers reportedly remained trapped inside the facility, holding on against the extremists.

The air base defenders probably faced death if captured. Islamic State militants routinely execute captive Syrian troops, labeling them “apostates.”

A U.S.-led coalition has been bombing Islamic State targets in Syria and neighboring Iraq for more than a year. However, the U.S.-led effort does not intervene on behalf of pro-Assad forces. The Obama administration and its allies have called for Assad to step down and have labeled the Syrian president a “magnet” for terrorists.

Moscow, however, has described Assad’s government as a crucial barrier against “terrorism” in Syria and has targeted an array of rebels threatening government-controlled areas. The Russian aerial intervention has mostly focused on non-Islamic State insurgents, including Al Qaeda-linked fighters and factions affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, a loose confederation of militias that includes some groups backed by Washington and its allies.

Times staff writer McDonnell reported from Beirut and special correspondent Bulos from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Twitter: @mcdneville

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