Syrian rebels target key airbase before opposition talks
DAMASCUS, Syria (2nd UPDATE)- Syrian rebels said Saturday they had launched a major assault against a northern airbase used to deploy regime air power, on the eve of a crucial meeting to decide the future of the opposition.
The attack on the Taftanaz base, from where helicopter gunships raid opposition positions and rebel-held areas, comes after regime forces this week launched an unprecedented wave of air strikes in a bid to reverse rebel gains.
A video posted on the Internet said eight battalions were taking part in the attack, including the radical Islamist Al-Nusra Front, and showed a missile launcher mounted on the back of a pick-up truck firing on regime positions.
The Syrian Revolution General Commission, a network of activists on the ground, said an operation had begun "to liberate the Taftanaz airbase".
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based watchdog, said "heavy fighting" had broken out near the base, in Idlib province where rebels have made significant gains this week.
The rebels earlier on Saturday seized an air defence position at Duwila in Idlib, in fighting that killed an army officer and wounded eight rebel fighters, the Observatory said.
After seizing arms and ammunition from the post, the rebels fled under attack from the air.
The rebels made other gains near Damascus, the Observatory said, seizing a police station, a municipal building and a hospital in the town of Douma, northeast of the capital, after fighting that killed 21 soldiers.
The fresh clashes came as Syria's political opposition prepared for key talks starting Sunday in Qatar, where the United States is expected to push for a new umbrella organisation to unite the country's fractured regime opponents.
Reports have emerged that Washington will press for an overhaul of the opposition and its main representative body, the Syrian National Council (SNC), with long-time dissident Riad Seif touted as the potential head of a new government-in-exile dubbed the Syrian National Initiative.
The SNC lashed out at US interference on Friday, accusing Washington of undermining the country's revolt and "sowing the seeds of division" by seeking the overhaul.
Washington denied it was trying to interfere, insisting it was simply seeking to ensure that more voices were heard.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week voiced frustration with the SNC, saying it was not representative of on-the-ground opposition forces and that it "can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition".
The rebels have meanwhile faced criticism after a video on YouTube appeared to show opposition fighters beating and executing soldiers after attacks Thursday on checkpoints near the northwestern town of Saraqeb.
The video -- the authenticity of which could not be verified -- showed about 10 soldiers being beaten, then lined up on the ground and executed with automatic rifles.
The UN human rights body said the video appeared to show a war crime and warned that "accountability will follow" for those who commit atrocities.
The SNC called for those responsible to be held accountable, while London, Paris and Washington raised concerns.
"There is no justification for that kind of behaviour ever. Anyone committing atrocities should be held to account," US State Department spokeswoman Nuland told journalists.
The video was reportedly shot after rebels seized three checkpoints on Thursday in the Saraqeb area.
The rebels consolidated their hold on the area Friday by forcing regime troops out of their last position, taking control of a key crossroads where the roads to commercial hub Aleppo from Damascus and from the Mediterranean coast meet.
Nationwide, 181 people were killed in violence on Friday, according to the Observatory, which relies on a network of activists and medics in civilian and military hospitals for its figures.
It says more than 36,000 people have been killed since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's rule broke out in March 2011 as a protest movement inspired by the Arab Spring before escalating into an armed rebellion. - Agence France-Presse