Insurgents led by al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria have captured a north-western army air base after a two-year siege, leaving the entire province of Idlib free of government forces, state media and an activist group said.
A state television report said government forces at the Abu Zuhour air base “have evacuated their positions and moved to another point”. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said insurgents, including members of the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, captured the base under the cover of a sandstorm and forced government forces out of their last post in Idlib province, which borders Turkey.
The Local Coordination Committees organisation posted a photo on its Facebook page it said showed Nusra Front fighters standing in front of warplanes inside the base. Rami Abdurrahman, who heads SOHR, said militants were aided by a Middle East-wide sandstorm that reduced visibility.
The capture of Abu Zuhour is the latest in a series of setbacks for government forces in Idlib province. Earlier this year, militant groups captured the provincial capital, also named Idlib, as well as other towns and villages.
Insurgents now control nearly all of the province, except for the predominantly Shia villages of Foua and Kfarya, which pro-government militia hold.
Idlib is the second of Syria’s 14 provinces to be free of Syrian government forces. Raqqa in the north is held by Islamic State.
Syria’s conflict has killed more than 250,000 people since March 2011.