Syrian army seizes strategic air base near Qusair: media

BEIRUT Wed May 29, 2013 12:45pm EDT

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad seized an air base in a village near the town of Qusair on Wednesday, in a major blow for rebels in their battle with government forces backed by Hezbollah fighters, state media said.

Assad's troops and Hezbollah fighters already surround Qusair from three sides. Taking control of Dabaa village, to the north, would put the strategic town under siege from four sides and cut a main reinforcement line for the rebels.

"Our troops are now in full control of Dabaa air base," Syrian state television said, after five hours of fierce fighting in and around it.

Hezbollah's Manar TV, which has a crew with the government forces, showed tanks being deployed inside the air base and soldiers walking around empty hangars, some making victory signs.

"We are standing in the airport. It is now safe and secured," a Syrian officer who took part in the assault told Manar. He said some rebels escaped and were being chased by government troops. Some were detained and many killed.

Seizing the town of Qusair would secure territory that connects the capital Damascus to Assad's stronghold on the Mediterranean coast, home to his minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that has largely supported him.

It also allow Assad to sever links between rebel-held areas in the north and south of Syria.

(Reporting by Mariam Karouny; editing by Andrew Roche)

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