Syria rebels capture army base

In a strategic blow for the govt, Syrian rebels captured an army base in an eastern oil province.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Picture: AFP

AMMAN - Syrian rebels captured an army base in an eastern oil province on Thursday, further weakening President Bashar al-Assad's control in the strategic region bordering Iraq.

The capture of the artillery base on the outskirts of Mayadeen, a town on the Euphrates river near some of Syria's main oilfields, followed rebel takeovers of military installations in the north and centre of the country this week.

Recent rebel momentum shows the increasing potency of the mainly Sunni Muslim fighters trying to topple Assad, who belongs to the Alawite minority linked to Shi'ite Islam. But insurgents have often had to retreat quickly after making advances to avoid strikes by the president's air force.

"The Mayadeen military base fell at 8.30 a.m. (6.30 a.m. British time)," Abu Laila, an official in the Military Revolutionary Council in the province, told Reuters. He said 44 rebel fighters had been killed in the operation to capture the base.

"The whole countryside, from the Iraqi border and along the Euphrates to the city of Deir al-Zor, is now under rebel control," he said.

Another opposition source in contact with rebels confirmed the base, 42 km (26 miles) south-east of Deir al-Zor, had fallen.

Video posted online showed rebels on motorcycles and trucks apparently inside the base waving victory signs as smoke rose from two buildings. Artillery pieces could be seen on the ground and a tank transporter stood abandoned.

Severe restrictions on non-state media make it impossible to verify opposition reports independently.

Activists say 38,000 people have been killed in the 20-month uprising which threatens to draw in regional Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim powers. Hundreds of thousands have fled the country and 2.5 million are displaced, aid groups say.

Western states, anxious to avoid another costly Middle East conflict and wary of backing rebels who include Islamist militants, have stayed on the sidelines, although France and Britain formally recognised a newly formed opposition coalition as the sole representative of the Syrians this month.

Russia, which along with China has blocked three resolutions which could have led to U.N. sanctions against Assad, criticised on Thursday proposals for NATO to deploy Patriot missiles in Turkey near the Syrian border.

"This would not foster stability in the region," Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said.