Free Syrian Army forces on Monday took control of a contested military air base near the northern city of Aleppo as rebels captured four villages in the heartland of President Bashar al-Assad’s minority Alawite sect.
The rebel army swept through the Menagh air base hours after a suicide bomber detonated  a car loaded with explosive inside the base, reportedly killing a number of regime army troops.
The air base was besieged by rebels for about 10 months and has been a major source of aerial bombardments carried out by regime fighter jets and helicopters on rebel strongholds in the northern part of the country.
Gaining control of the airbase was part of a series of recent field gains achieved by the Free Syrian Army in its struggle to oust President Assad from power.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Monday that rebels captured four villages near Assad’s heartland town of Latakia after attacking government outposts in the Jabal al-Akrad hills on Sunday.
The group, which relies on reports from activists on the ground, said at least 32 government troops and militiamen and at least 19 rebels, including foreign fighters, died in Sunday’s fighting, Associated Press reported.
Much of Latakia has been under the firm control of Assad’s forces since the beginning of the conflict more than two years ago. But some areas, including Jabal al-Akrad, are close to rebel-held areas and have seen fighting, according to Associated Press.
It was a rare success for the rebels on the battlefield in recent weeks. Assad’s forces have been on the offensive since taking the central town of Qusair in June, and last week captured a key district in the central city of Homs, an opposition stronghold.
A rebel in Latakia, who identified himself as Mohammed Haffawi, told The Associated Press that the rebels were getting closer to the town of Haffa, which was captured by Assad’s forces in June last year, and had killed dozens in the fighting.
Haffawi said the rebels captured about 400 Alawite villagers and pro-government gunmen on Monday.