BEIRUT: Islamic State group fighters stormed parts of a sprawling army air base Saturday in eastern Syria after days of clashes that killed dozens on both sides, activists said, while state media reported that the offensive was repelled.
The base, outside the city of Deir el-Zour, has been used by the government in the past months to launch air raids on areas held by the Islamic State group bordering Iraq.
The Islamic State group is trying to capture the air base and a nearby barracks known as Brigade 137 to eliminate the main pocket of resistance in the area and provide a major morale and propaganda boost after a string of setbacks in recent weeks.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the latest attack began Saturday with a suicide car bomb at the main entrance of the Deir el-Zour air base. Later Saturday, the push stopped after fighters came under heavy shelling from army positions, it added.
The group said that some Islamic State fighters had breathing problems in the area after government forces used chlorine gas against them.
Syrian state TV quoted an unnamed military official as saying that troops repelled attempts by “terrorists” on several areas near the city of Deir el-Zour and killed “tens of them and destroyed their vehicles and weapons.”
The Islamic State group began a major offensive on the air base, one of the last government-held areas in the province of Deir el-Zour, on Thursday.
The Observatory said that since Thursday, 119 fighters on both sides have been killed, including 51 troops and pro-government militiamen. It said some 68 Islamic State group fighters have been killed, of which 33 were Syrians and two were French citizens.
Activists who support the Islamic State group posted photos on social media showing two military helicopters that they claimed were captured by the jihadis.
There was no immediate word from the government about Saturday’s capture of parts of the air base.
Earlier Saturday, state news agency SANA said the government’s air force was taking part in the operations at the air base, adding that they destroyed an Islamic State group convoy consisting of five armored vehicles and four pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns.
On Friday, Islamic State group fighters captured the strategic village of Jafra near the air base. If jihadis capture the air base and Brigade 137, they could threaten government-held areas in the provincial capital of Deir el-Zour.
In Lebanon, state-run National News Agency said a Lebanese army aircraft fired missiles Saturday on a command position of jihadi groups on the outskirts of the Lebanese border town of Arsal, inflicting casualties among them.
The attack came a day after an al-Qaida-linked group in Syria said it had killed a Lebanese soldier it was holding captive.
The Nusra Front said it shot dead Ali Bazzal on Friday night in retaliation for the Lebanese government’s detention of the wives and children of militants.
Lebanese security officials this week said they have arrested a wife and child of the Islamic State group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Authorities have also arrested the wife and two children of another Sunni militant commander in Syria, Abu Ali al-Shishani.
The Nusra Front and the Islamic State group have been holding more than 20 Lebanese soldiers and policemen since August. They have so far killed four of them.