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Syria Live Coverage: Insurgents Take Another Major Airbase Near Aleppo

Video from Thursday showing insurgents firing RPGs on the as-Safira airbase in Aleppo Province

See also Bahrain (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Thousands March as Clashes Continue
Saturday's Syria Live Coverage: "Assad Must Be Held Accountable for His Crimes"

1731 GMT: Defections? An opposition activist tells Al Jazeera that 650 regime soldiers, including 50 officers, have defected in Damascus Province.

1725 GMT: Hezbollah v. Insurgents? At least one Hezbollah fighter and five Syrian insurgents have been killed in clashes in Syrian territory on the border with Lebanon.

Hadi al-Abdallah of the Syrian Revolution General Commission said fighting broke out on Saturday after Hezbollah, in control of eight Syrian border villages, tried to expand into three adjacent Sunni villages held by the Free Syrian Army.

"The Hezbollah force moved on foot and was supported by multiple rocket launchers. The Free Syrian Army had to call in two tanks that had been captured from the Assad army to repel the attack," Abdallah said.

Earlier today a Hezbollah official said two Lebanese men had been killed and 14 wounded while acting in "self-defence" against Syrian insurgents.

1705 GMT: The Battle For Damascus. Mike Giglio posts a lengthy overview of the looming fight for the capital, with extensive analysis from EA WorldView:

The rebels have the momentum. And in their current Damascus offensive, according to analysts such as James Miller, the opposition appears to be better organized than in the past and far better armed.

But Assad still has two big advantages on his side as he fights to keep control of the capital, according to several experts tracking the conflict. Neighborhoods that house Assad’s most loyal supporters surround strategically critical points of interest, such as military installations and government institutions, mainly in the northwest. And in a city pressed against mountains, Assad also holds the key positions above. “The rebels don’t have a cohesive route into the center of the capital, because there are these enclaves of Assad support—and they’re protected by the military, the police, and also local militias,” Miller says. “And the regime holds all the high ground.”

1655 GMT: The Regime Line. Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Muqdad responses to a series of developments --- from the insurgents' capture of regime bases and other positions to last night's blackout in Damascus --- in an interview with CNN: "We are winning. We have already won."

1500 GMT: Hezbollah v. the Insurgency?. An official of Lebanon's Hezbollah has said two Lebanese Shia were killed and 14 wounded in fighting in Syria.

The official said the men were acting in "self-defence".

The statement follows claims by a Free Syrian Army spokesman of near-daily clashes between Syrian insurgents and Hezbollah fighters (see 1015).

1435 GMT: Aid. The United Nations refugee agency says it has not yet received recently-pledged funds and is struggling to help the rising numbers fleeing the country.

Andrew Harper said $1.5 billion pledged last month at an international donor conference in Kuwait "has not come through".

Almost 800,000 Syrians have now left the country. Almost 370,000 of them in Jordan, where UN agencies are spending $1 million a day, according to Harper.

1335 GMT: Clashes in Damascus. Insurgents fighting near the police station in the Qaddam section of the capital:

1125 GMT: Blackout. Minister of Electricity Imad Khamis said electricity has been restored in most parts of Damascus after it was cut last night and that power will gradually reach southern areas such as Daraa and Suweida Provinces.

Khamis blamed the blackout on an unspecified fault in high-tension lines.

1045 GMT: Negotiations. United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has called for talks between the Syrian opposition and an "acceptable delegation" from the regime.

After talks at Arab League headquarters, Brahimi said negotiations could begin on UN premises, without giving a specific location.

Brahimi said the announcement of Moaz al-Khatib, leader of the opposition National Coalition, that he would meet regime officials if certain conditions were met "has opened the door, and the Syrian government has said in truth that it confirms what it has been continuously saying, that it is ready for dialogue and for a peaceful solution".

Brahimi continued, "We believe that if a dialogue begins at the offices of the United Nations, at least at the start, between the opposition and an acceptable delegation from the Syrian government, we think this will be a start to get out of the dark tunnel."

Al-Khatib said earlier this month he would enter discussions if political prisoners were freed. The Assad regime did not respond directly to the offer and eventually pushed it aside with the insistence that "national dialogue" had to be in Damascus, rather than in an insurgent-held area or abroad.

1025 GMT: Kidnappings. Local people have spoken of a spike in kidnappings in Idlib Province.

Abductions became common last year, as insurgents set up checkpoints to catch men, usually Shia, whom they accused of being pro-regime militia "shabiha", and mainly-Shia gunmen took men whom they said were terrorist. Elders from villages arranged prisoner exchanges to avoid violence.

The recent escalation reportedly stems from an incident on Thursday, when unknown gunmen stopped a bus carrying Shia civilians. Many of the kidnapped passengers were women and children.

"Before, it was all militiamen catching rebels. It was all part of the war," activist Bahaideen Abdel-Razaq said. "But kidnapping of women and children had never happened before."

Shiite gunmen soon abducted residents of nearby Sunni villages, Abdel-Razaq said, stopping public buses on rural highways or on their way into Idlib city, which is still under regime control.

The number of people seized is still unclear.

1015 GMT: Insurgents v. Hezbollah? The press officer of the Free Syrian Army's Joint Command, Fahd al-Masri, has said that there are clashes almost every day between Free Syrian Army forces and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters supporting the Assad regime.

Al-Masri said the fighting was inside Syria on the Lebanese border, with Hezbollah occupying six Syrian villages. He also accusedHezbollah of shelling towns in Damascus Province, firing from the Lebanese heights of Hermel.

Al-Masri made the claim to the Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper, which has posted the claims of Hezbollah involvement in Syria on several occasions over the last six months.

Meanwhile, the opposition Syrian National Council accused Hezbollah of attacking "three Syrian villages in the Qusayr region near the Lebanese border", causing "civilian casualties and the exodus of hundreds of people" and stoking "sectarian tensions" in the area.

The SNC said Hezbollah was employing "heavy weapons openly and under the auspices of the Syrian regime army", in a "serious threat to Syrian-Lebanese relations and regional peace and security".

0915 GMT: Casualties. The Local Coordination Committees report 100 people killed on Saturday, including 27 in Aleppo Province, 23 in Damascus and its suburbs, and 21 in Homs Province.

0825 GMT: Weapons. Syria Comment complements the recent revelations by EA's James Miller about new stocks of advanced weapons, financed and supplied by foreign actors, appearing in the hands of insurgents.

See Syria Analysis: A New Insurgent Alliance --- With New Weapons --- Is Changing the War
Syria Analysis: Someone is Arming the Insurgents...and It's Working

Like Miller, Syria Comment has discovered weapons from the Balkans; however, while Miller has focused on supplies in the south and near Damascus, Syria Comment's report is from Aleppo:

Ten anti-Tank rockets have been acquired by the Syrian Supreme Military Council, led by Brigadier Selim Idris. Each costs between $20 to 25 thousand....This is a M79 Osa (Wasp) 90 mm portable anti-tank rocket launcher, a Yugoslavian/Serbian modernized variant of the French-made LRAC F1 -unguided rocket.

The weapons have been handed over to Abu Ali Sulaibi, commander of the front-line, Saif al-Dawla area of Aleppo.

Syria Comment then puts the questions that Miller has been asking:

Why have these weapons been supplied now? Who approved them? We don’t know. It is said that these weapons may have come from Libya and have been sitting in Turkey for some time but approval “may not have been” given for them to be released. It seems that this has changed as of late.

My speculative response? Just as the US appears to have reached an agreement with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey over which insurgent factions should be supplied in the south, so the countries may be reaching a consensus over the Aleppo front. I would take a glance at the multi-national centre in Turkey, near the Syrian border, in which the CIA has been vetting weapons supplies since last year.

0715 GMT: Insurgent Advance. Reports continue that the insurgency has taken another major regime airbase, near as-Safira in Aleppo Province.

The opposition fighters have put pressure on the base, east of Aleppo International Airport, for months. On Wednesday, claims began circulating that they had succeeded in taking the facility after a battle that killed scores on both side; video on Thursday showed attacks by insurgents on areas near the airbase, possibly to cut off regime military forces trying to reclaim the position.

The latest advance is another step in the insurgents' attempt to cut off the Assad military and limit its movement by taking bases around Aleppo, where insurgents and regime forces have been battling since last July.

The base near as-Safira is also notable because of past claims that it has a chemical weapons depot, although it is unclear if the stocks have been moved.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Observatory also claims fighting near the airport and around another airbase at Nayrab.

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