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Al Qaeda fighters execute 56 Syrian soldiers, activists say

In a Sept. 10 image from the Twitter account of Syria's Nusra Front, fighters from the group gather around a Syrian government aircraft after they seized the Abu Duhur air base.

In a Sept. 10 image from the Twitter account of Syria’s Nusra Front, fighters from the group gather around a Syrian government aircraft after they seized the Abu Duhur air base.

(Associated Press)

Al Qaeda-affiliated militants summarily executed 56 Syrian government soldiers days after wresting control of a strategic airbase in the northwestern part of the country, a monitoring group said Saturday.

Jihadists with the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, as well as the Turkistan Islamic Party, another militant group, executed 56 troops taken prisoner last week as rebels overran the Abu Duhur air base in Idlib province, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition watchdog group based in Britain.

Earlier in the week, Nusra Front supporters uploaded images on social media purporting to show captive government soldiers as they were lined up and shot at close range. One picture depicts a line of corpses, pools of blood close to each body.

Abu Duhur, a strategic airport about 35 miles southeast of the city of Aleppo, was the last major government garrison in Idlib province.

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In March, the Army of Conquest, a loose coalition of Islamist factions that includes the Nusra Front, pushed government forces from most of the province, which borders Turkey.

The Turkish government is a key backer of various Syrian rebel factions. Hard-core Islamist groups now dominate the opposition forces fighting to oust the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The government-held airport had withstood repeated opposition assaults, despite being besieged for more than two years.

On Sept. 9, however, an intense sandstorm engulfed the area of the air base, grounding warplanes due to low visibility and giving rebels a respite from government airstrikes. The jihadists subsequently breached the base’s defenses, killing and capturing scores of government loyalists, according to various accounts.

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Syrian state media have acknowledged the loss of Abu Duhur, adding that troops “had evacuated their points in the airport.” But the British-based observatory reported that none of the troops at the base had escaped.

The last remaining government-controlled strongholds in Idlib province now appear to be the besieged towns of Fouaa and Kefraya, mostly Shiite communities that have been surrounded by opposition forces for more than two years. Most Syrian rebels are Sunni Muslims. Militant Sunni groups such as the Nusra Front and Islamic State, an Al Qaeda spinoff, regard Shiites as apostates.

On Friday, the Nusra Front released photos purporting to show its fighters overrunning positions on the outskirts of Fouaa. Pro-government accounts said loyalists had successfully repelled multiple waves of suicide bombers in the area. Government warplanes responded with multiple airstrikes on opposition positions near the two villages.

Bulos is a special correspondent. Staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.

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