Residents of Tabqa city tour the streets on motorcycles,
carrying flags in celebration after Tabqa air base fell to
Islamic State militants. REUTERS/Stringer
Islamic State militants have stormed an air base in
northeast Syria, capturing it from government forces after days
of fighting that cost more than 500 lives, a monitoring group
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 346
Islamic State fighters were killed and more than 170 members
of government forces had died since Tuesday in the fight over
Tabqa base, making it one of the deadliest confrontations
between the two groups since the start of Syria's war.
The Observatory, which monitors violence in Syria through
sources on the ground, said fighting raged inside the air
base on Sunday. It was the Syrian army's last foothold in an
area otherwise controlled by Islamic State, which has seized
large areas of Syria and Iraq.
In nearby Raqqa city, an Islamic State stronghold, there was
celebratory gunfire and several mosques announced through
their loudspeakers that the base had fallen to the Islamists
and cheered "God is greatest", a witness told Reuters.
IS fighters displayed the severed heads of Syrian army
soldiers in the city square, the witness said, adding that
Syrian warplanes were heard over Raqqa following the air base
attack. Earlier on Sunday the Syrian air force had bombed
areas around the base.
Syrian state television said that after fierce battles, the
military was "regrouping".
Citing a military source, it said there was a "successful
evacuation of the airport" and that the army was continuing
strikes on "terrorist groups" in the area, which it said had
suffered heavy losses.
Syrian state media gave no figure for the number of people
killed in the clashes.
Islamic State had also trapped around 150 retreating Syrian
soldiers in an area near the base and was believed to be
holding them captive, the Observatory said.
The Syrian army sent reinforcements to the base overnight on
Friday to fight Islamic State, which controls roughly a third
of northern and eastern Syria.
Syrian television had shown footage of army forces defending
the base on Saturday who had said it was safe from Islamic
State's advances. Many of the Islamic State fighters died
after Syrian warplanes bombarded the area, the Observatory
Islamic State, a radical offshoot of al Qaeda, has taken
three Syrian military bases in the area in recent weeks,
boosted by arms seized in Iraq.
Syria is calculating that the IS push to reshape the Middle
East will eventually force the West to deal with President
Bashar al-Assad as the only way to tackle the threat, sources
familiar with Syrian government thinking have said.
Elsewhere in Syria, the group withdrew from northern areas it
controlled outside the city of Homs on Sunday and retreated
east after coming under attack from rival Islamist fighters,
the Observatory said.
Fighters from the group withdrew from a headquarters north of
Homs on the orders of their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the
Observatory said, citing sources in the area.
They said IS gave up the territory to Nusra Front, al Qaeda's
official wing in Syria.
As well as Nusra Front, Western-backed rebels have also been
fighting IS in Syria but have regularly been defeated by the
group, which in June declared an "Islamic caliphate" in the
territory it controls.
Activists have accused the Syrian army of avoiding
confrontations with IS because it has weakened rival rebel
groups also battling Assad.