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Militants Attack Syrian Air Base       08/20 06:35

   Islamic extremists fired rockets and tank shells Wednesday at a major air 
base in northeastern Syria, kicking off a long-anticipated offensive to seize 
the last position held by the Syrian government in a province that is a 
stronghold of the Islamic State group, activists said.

   BEIRUT (AP) -- Islamic extremists fired rockets and tank shells Wednesday at 
a major air base in northeastern Syria, kicking off a long-anticipated 
offensive to seize the last position held by the Syrian government in a 
province that is a stronghold of the Islamic State group, activists said.

   The attack on the Tabqa air base had been expected for weeks. Islamic State 
fighters have tightened their siege of the sprawling facility in recent days, 
capturing a string of nearby villages.

   The group in past months virtually eliminated the military's presence in 
Raqqa province, with the exception of Tabqa. The air base is one of the most 
significant government military facilities in the area, containing several 
warplane squadrons, helicopters, tanks, artillery and ammunition.

   Last month, the jihadis overran the sprawling Division 17 military base in 
Raqqa, killing at least 85 soldiers. Two weeks later, Islamic State fighters 
seized the nearby Brigade 93 base after days of heavy fighting.

   Militant websites affiliated with the Islamic State announced the assault 
Wednesday. Since July, following their blitz in Iraq and after they declared a 
self-styled caliphate straddling the Iraq-Syria border, Islamic State fighters 
methodically have gone after isolated government bases in northern and eastern 
Syria, killing and decapitating army commanders and pro-government militiamen.

   The Tabqa attack also was reported by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory 
for Human Rights and the Raqqa Media Center, an activist collective, which 
reported fierce clashes around the facility accompanied by government 
airstrikes.

   It said army warplanes conducted airstrikes on suspected militant positions 
in the nearby town of Tabqa on the Euphrates river, which flows from Turkey 
through Syria into Iraq.

   The town is home to al-Furat dam, Syria's largest, now controlled by the 
Islamic State group.

   The group's lightning advance has brought under its control territory 
stretching from northern Syria as far as the outskirts of Baghdad in central 
Iraq. The militant gains brought U.S. forces back into conflict in Iraq for the 
first time since they withdrew in 2011. Washington began carrying out dozens of 
airstrikes against militant targets in Iraq on Aug. 8.

   On Tuesday, militants released a video showing the beheading of American 
journalist James Foley in what the extremists called retribution for recent 
U.S. airstrikes in Iraq. The militants threatened to kill another captive they 
also identified as an American journalist.

   The beheading marks the first time the Islamic State has killed an American 
citizen since the Syrian conflict broke out in March 2011, upping the stakes in 
an increasingly chaotic and multilayered war. If confirmed, the killing is 
likely to complicate U.S. involvement in Iraq and the Obama administration's 
efforts to contain the group as it expands in both Iraq and Syria.


(KA)


 
 
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