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Rebels capture air base in northern Syria

BEIRUT — Rebels captured a military air base in northern Syria on Tuesday, their second major strategic victory in as many days, activists said.

The assault on the Jarrah airfield in Aleppo province comes a day after opposition fighters seized the nation's largest dam, an iconic industrial symbol of the four-decade rule of President Bashar Assad's family. The rebels have had their biggest success in Syria's civil war in the northeast, and the twin victories appeared to indicate they were solidifying their control of large swaths of the country's once heavily-contested north.

The director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said that after days of sporadic clashes around the Jarrah airfield, rebels launched a major assault on the base on Monday and had overrun the facility by Tuesday morning.

He said several regime troops in the area were killed or wounded in the fighting, while others fled as the rebels advanced. There was no word on opposition casualties.

The airfield, which is located near the Furat dam captured on Monday, housed fighter jets that have been carrying out airstrikes on rebel held-areas around the country.

A video posted online by activists showed several military aircraft at Jarrah, some of them parked on the tarmac while another is in a hanger with boxes of ammunition piled up against a wall nearby.

"These warplanes are now in the hands of Ahrar al-Sham Islamic movement," one rebel says in the video, referring to a specific rebel unit.

The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other Associated Press reporting on the events depicted.

The air base is located near the northeastern town once known as Tabqa. The town's name changed to Thawra, Arabic for revolution, after the Furat dam was built there in the late 1960s.

Earlier this month, the Observatory said rebels seized another smaller dam in Raqqa province, the Baath dam, named after Syria's ruling party. In November, Syrian opposition fighters captured Tishrin hydroelectric dam near the town of Manbij in northern Aleppo province, which borders Raqqa.

Rebels led by the al-Qaida-linked militant group Jabhat al-Nusra captured the Furat dam on Monday, taking control over water and electricity supplies for both government-held areas and large swaths of land the opposition has captured over the past 22 months of fighting.

While the rebels control many areas in the north and east of the country, and hold whole neighborhoods of the city of Aleppo, Syria's largest urban center and its main commercial hub, the government maintains a tight grip on Damascus, and several central provinces, including Homs and Hama.

For nearly a week, the rebels have been trying to slowly battle their way into the capital from neighborhoods and towns on its doorstep, and have punched to within a mile of the heart of the city.

Fighting continued in the capital on Tuesday. Activists said government warplanes carried out air raids on opposition strongholds in several suburbs Tuesday including Zamalka and Douma.

In Turkey, Interior Minister Muammer Guler said the death toll from an attack on a border crossing with Syria's Idlib province had risen from 13 to 14.

The frontier area has seen heavy fighting, although attacks on the crossings that are used by Syrian refugees and international aid agencies have been rare.

There was no claim of responsibility for Monday's blast. Turkey's deputy prime minister, Besir Atalay, said Tuesday that a preliminary investigation indicated three assailants parked a car packed with explosives in no-man's land between two border gates, then detonated it remotely about 20 minutes later.

Atalay said the car had Syrian license plates. He did not say who was behind the attack, only that the probe into the blast is ongoing.

Tensions have flared between the Syrian regime and Turkey in the past months after shells fired from Syria landed on the Turkish side of the border, prompting Turkey to return fire.

Germany, the Netherlands and the United States decided to send two batteries of Patriot air defense missiles each to protect Turkey, their NATO ally.

Turkey, formerly an ally of Damascus, has backed the opposition in the uprising against Assad's rule that erupted in March 2011 and has claimed more than 60,000 lives according to the United Nations.

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Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey contributed to this report.

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