Fighters from the Islamic State group have taken over an air base in northeast Syria, capturing it from government forces after fighting that cost more than 500 lives, a monitoring group and state media have said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a London-based monitoring group, said at least 346 Islamic State fighters and more than 170 government forces had been killed since Tuesday in the fight over the Tabqa base, which was captured by fighters on Sunday.
Syria’s official news agency said the military had withdrawn from the base after pitched battles and was still carrying out strikes on Monday.
Syrian state media gave no figure for the number of people killed in the clashes.
The base was the Syrian army’s last foothold in an area otherwise controlled by the self-declared jihadist Islamic State group, which has seized large areas of Syria and Iraq.
It is one of the most significant government military facilities in the area, containing several warplane squadrons, helicopters, tanks, artillery and ammunition.
In nearby Raqqa city, an Islamic State stronghold, there was celebratory gunfire and the development was announced by several mosques through their loudspeakers, a witness told the Reuters news agency.
Fighters displayed the severed heads of Syrian army soldiers in the city square, the witness said.
The Islamic State also trapped around 150 retreating Syrian soldiers in an area near the base and was believed to be holding them captive, the Observatory said.
Regime forces had repelled three earlier attacks on the base in the previous week.
The Islamic State has taken three Syrian military bases in the area in recent weeks, boosted by arms seized in Iraq.
Tabqa is the last army stronghold in the Raqqa, after fighters captured Brigade 93 and Division 17 in the northern province, killing dozens of soldiers, many of whom were beheaded.
Raqqa province has become the stronghold of the Islamic State, which controls the provincial capital and has declared an Islamic “caliphate” in territory it holds in Syria and Iraq.
The group initially fought alongside Syrian opposition groups, but its abuses sparked a backlash from rebels who pushed it out of parts of northern Syria.