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updated: 8/26/2014 8:34 AM

Islamic State militants seizes air base in Syria, group says

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Bloomberg News

Islamic State militants seized a Syrian air base, dislodging forces loyal to President Bashar al- Assad from the their last stronghold in the northeastern Raqqa province.

The al-Qaeda breakaway group, which is also fighting government forces in Iraq, stormed the Tabaqa air base after battles that began last week, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the daily developments of the civil war. The government moved its aircraft to other bases, it said.

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With the capture of the air base, Raqqa becomes the first province fully outside Assad's control, further cementing the Islamic State's hold inside its self-declared state, and allowing it to focus on the neighboring Aleppo province. The group has already seized villages and towns held by other rebels in Aleppo.

The Islamic State now "controls the province completely," Rami Abdurrahman, head of the U.K.-based observatory said by phone yesterday, referring to Raqqa. "There are clashes near the airport as the gunmen chase what's left of the regime forces."

At least 170 government troops were killed yesterday and 150 may have been captured, SOHR said. More than 346 Islamic State fighters have died in government airstrikes and barrel bombings since the group launched its assault on the facility Aug. 19, it added. The militants were seen walking in Tabaqa city carrying heads of Syrian soldiers, the observatory, which relies on witnesses, said in a report.

'Fierce Battles'

The state-run SANA news agency said that following "fierce battles" at Tabaqa yesterday, Syrian troops successfully regrouped after the evacuation of the airport. Forces were still "carrying out precision strikes against the terrorist groups in the area and inflicting heavy losses," it said.

Around 320 fighters from rebel and Islamist groups joined Islamic State yesterday, SOHR said on its Facebook page. The fighters are from the provinces of Aleppo and Idlib, it said.

The group declared an Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq in June after capturing Mosul, Iraq's biggest northern city, and other towns. The so-called state spreads from Aleppo in northern Syria to the eastern Iraqi province of Diyala, according to an audio recording at the time purportedly by the group's spokesman.

Its advance in Iraq prompted the U.S. to send military advisers and eventually to launch airstrikes against the group's positions, helping Kurdish and Iraqi government troops regain control of the Mosul Dam, the country's biggest.

Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, are using heavy and light weapons received from the U.S. as they fight to seize back territory taken by Islamic State fighters, spokesman Halgourd Hikmat said last week.

Hikmat, speaking by phone today, said peshmerga forces were positioned outside Jalula, a town about 100 miles (160 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad with a mixed population of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen.

"We have an operations room that plans and supervises the advances," he said.

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