Syrian rebels have captured a military base in the strategic central Homs province as part of a drive to try to expand territory under their control near the Lebanese border, activists said.
The Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights said the opposition fighters took control of the Dabaa military complex on Thursday, after weeks of fighting with government forces for control of the facility.
The group said government forces withdrew to military barracks east of the airport after fierce clashes took place, with casualties on both sides.
Dabaa is a former air force base and has an airfield, which has not been used since the Syrian conflict started. Instead, the army has based ground troops in the facility to fight the rebels, the Observatory said.
The base is located near Qusair, a contested central Syrian town near a key highway between Damascus and the coastal enclave that is the heartland of Syria’s Alawite community and also home to the country’s two main seaports, Latakia and Tartus.
The region is considered important to President Bashar al-Assad as it links Damascus, his seat of power, with one of his main allies, the Hezbollah group in neighbouring Lebanon.
US troops to Jordan
The latest rebel advances came a day after Assad accused the West of backing al-Qaeda in Syria’s two-year-old conflict.
In a rare television interview, Assad lashed out at Jordan for allowing “thousands” of fighters to enter Syria to fight in the civil war, and pledged to defeat the opposition fighters.
Earlier this year, the US announced a $60m non-lethal assistance package for Syria that includes meals and medical supplies for the armed opposition.
On Wednesday, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress that the Pentagon was sending about 200 soldiers from an army headquarters unit to Jordan to assist efforts to contain violence along the Syrian border and plan for any operations needed to ensure the safety of chemical weapons in Syria.
The decision to dispatch the 1st Armoured Division troops of planners and specialists in intelligence, logistics and operations, came after several legislators pressed the US administration for even more aggressive steps to end the civil war.
The opposition fighters have in the past months chipped away at Assad’s hold in northern and eastern Syria.
They have also made significant gains in the south, in the area between Damascus and the Jordanian border, helped in part by a recent influx of foreign-funded weapons across the boundary.