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Feb 11, 6:35 AM EST

Kurdish fighters capture military air base in northern Syria


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BEIRUT (AP) -- Kurdish fighters and their allies captured a military air base in northern Syria under the cover of airstrikes as Russia announced on Thursday that its air force carried out more than 500 combat missions in Syria over the past week.

Syrian troops launched a wide offensive in northern Syria earlier in February under the cover of Russian airstrikes during which they were able to capture areas from opposition fighters and now are trying to regain rebel-held neighborhoods in the northern city of Aleppo.

Syria's Kurds have been among the most effective forces battling the Islamic State group, but have remained largely neutral in the conflict between President Bashar Assad and the rebels fighting to overthrow him.

But on Wednesday, the main Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, launched an attack along with some Arab allies against the Mannagh military air base and captured it later in the day, according to a rebel commander and an opposition activist group. The Kurds appeared to be exploiting the chaos to expand their nearby enclave, known as Afrin.

Abdul-Jabbar Abu Thabet, a local rebel commander in Aleppo province, said Thursday that YPG fighters captured the Mannagh air base after fierce battles.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the offensive came as warplanes believed to be Russian carried out 30 airstrikes in the area. It said the YPG and allied forces also captured a nearby village, also called Mannagh.

In Moscow, Ministry of Defense spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said that since Feb. 4, Russian warplanes carried out 510 combat missions and destroyed 888 "terrorist facilities" in several Syrian provinces including Aleppo, Daraa and Latakia where the government offensive is concentrated.

"We have not witnessed such bombardment since the revolution began," said Abu Thabet referring to the start of the uprising against Assad's government in March 2011. The uprising later turned into a civil war that has killed at least 250,000 people.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said the fighting has displaced about 50,000 people, mostly in the northern parts of Aleppo province. ICRC said some supply routes used for bringing in aid have been cut adding that as the humanitarian situation deteriorates in northern Syria, the agency is increasing the amount aid for people caught up in the latest round of violence.

Another international aid group, the International Rescue Committee, said the fighting in Aleppo has displaced some 42,000 and 50,000 others fled their homes in the southern province of Daraa. It added that sky-rocketing prices in besieged areas are leaving tens of thousands at risk of malnutrition.

David Miliband, President of the IRC, was quoted in a statement released by the group as saying that "the severe disregard for the safety of civilians leaves Syrians no choice but to flee for their lives."

He added that IRC aid workers in northern Syria have said that they know of least two infant deaths due to malnutrition and the cold at the border.

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