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Syrian rebels backed by extremists seize army base

By The Associated Press

This article was published December 11, 2012 at 10:00 a.m.

— Syrian rebels backed by Islamic extremist fighters took full control of a sprawling military base Tuesday after a two-day battle that killed at least 35 government troops, an activist group said.

It was the second major base captured in the country’s north by the rebels, who have been racking up victories in the area in recent weeks and making inroads farther south toward Damascus, seat of the government they are fighting to overthrow.

Fighters from jihadi groups including the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra were among those doing battle in the rebel ranks, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria.

Al-Nusra fighters appear to be among the most effective fighting forces on the rebel side, spearheading many of the recent gains.

The presence of the jihadi groups has raised concerns in the U.S. and other nations that are supporting the opposition in Syria but do not want to see extremists gain power in the region. The U.S. this week blacklisted al-Nusra as a foreign terrorist organization and said the group was part of al-Qaida in Iraq.

The battle for the sprawling Sheik Suleiman military base, near the northern city of Aleppo, ended when the rebels took over the site’s main compound and warehouses that housed a military research center, according to the Observatory. They had first breached the base perimeter Sunday afternoon, after weeks of fighting with soldiers loyal to President Bashar Assad.

The Observatory said 35 soldiers were killed but did not give figures on rebel casualties from the battle.

Also Tuesday in Aleppo — the country’s largest city and commercial center — four mortar rounds hit the predominantly Kurdish neighborhood of Sheik Maksoud, killing 11, including three children and two women, and wounding a dozen other people, the Observatory said.

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