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Deadly price paid in ongoing battle for Syrian airport

– Intense clashes between the Syrian army and rebel fighters near the country’s second-largest airport killed about 150 people in recent days, anti-regime activists said Friday, pointing to the significance that both sides in the country’s civil war place on controlling key infrastructure.

The battle for the international airport near Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, resembles other battles over strategic assets that could provide an edge in the larger fight for the country.

This week, rebels seized a hydroelectric dam and a major oil field, cutting off President Bashar Assad’s regime from key resources necessary for its long-term survival. On Friday, activists said rebels seized an air defense base and fought near two other army installations in Syria’s north.

Rebels have tried for months to capture Aleppo’s international airport, which lies east of the city in a complex with a smaller military airfield and an army base that protects the area.

The base, home to the Syrian army’s 80th Brigade, fell to rebel forces Wednesday, and fighting has continued over the airports since, with both sides shelling each other’s positions.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Friday that about 150 people had been killed in the fighting over the last two days, roughly half of them rebels and half of them government troops.

“The operation will continue until we control the airport and Nairab,” Col. Abdul-Jabbar al-Aqidi, commander of the rebels’ Military Council in Aleppo, told Al-Arabiya TV.

If the rebels were to capture the two airports, it would be a symbolic blow to the regime and could shift the strategic balance in northern Syria. The regime has used the airports to ferry supplies to its forces bogged down in the stalemated fight for Aleppo, though recent clashes near the airport have halted air traffic.

Rebel leaders hope their forces will someday use the airports to fly in aid and other supplies. However, the rebels have captured military airports before but have never managed to use captured aircraft. And the airport would remain vulnerable to attack by Assad’s air force, which regularly bombs areas after the rebels take them.

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