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Syrian rebels strike back at Assad's air power

BEIRUT -- Rebels seized an air defense facility and attacked a military airport in eastern Syria on Saturday, a monitoring group said, hitting back at an air force on which President Bashar al-Assad is increasingly relying to crush his opponents.

The attacks in eastern oil-producing Deir al-Zor province follow rebel strikes against military airports in the Aleppo and Idlib areas, close to the border with Turkey.

Syria's leader, battling a 17-month-old uprising in which 20,000 people have been killed, has lost control of rural areas in northern, eastern and southern regions and has resorted to helicopter gunships and fighter jets to subdue his foes.

The aerial bombardment has driven fresh waves of refugees into neighboring countries, reviving Turkish calls for “safe zones” to be set up on Syrian territory — appeals ignored by a divided U.N. Security Council and by Western powers reluctant to commit the military forces needed to secure such zones.

Rebels in Deir al-Zor overran an air defense building early on Saturday, taking at least 16 captives and seizing an unknown number of anti-aircraft rockets, said Rami Abdulrahman of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Video posted on the Internet by activists showed the officers and soldiers captured by the rebel fighters, and Al Arabiya television broadcast footage of what it said were rockets and ammunition seized in the raid.

Abdulrahman said rebels also attacked the Hamdan military airbase at Albu Kamal, close to Syria's eastern border with Iraq, but did not succeed in breaking into it.

The attacks come three days after rebels attacked the Taftanaz air base in Idlib province, where they said several helicopters were damaged. The insurgents also said they have shot down a fighter jet and a helicopter last week.

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