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Rebels battle Assad's forces for gateway to north Syria

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian rebels are battling to seize an army base close to the main north-south highway and say its capture would be a big step towards creating a "safe zone" allowing them to focus on Bashar al-Assad's southern strongholds.

For two weeks they have surrounded and attacked Wadi al-Deif, east of the town of Maarat al-Numan. They say the ferocity of counter-attacks by government forces shows how important holding the base is to the president's military strategy.

Assad is fighting an insurgency that grew out of protests 19 months ago and has escalated into a civil war in which 30,000 people have been killed. His overstretched army has lost swathes of territory and relies on air power to keep rebels at bay.

If Wadi al-Daif fell to rebels, who already control northern border crossings to Turkey, Assad would be dependent on a single land route - from the Mediterranean port of Latakia - to supply his forces fighting to win back Aleppo, Syria's biggest city.

"The battle started 11 days ago. At first we sent small groups to liberate (the base) and we were surprised by the resistance the regime forces showed," said Lieutenant-Colonel Khaled Hmood, a former army officer who defected to fight Assad.

"The regime is fighting fiercely. It seems that it doesn't care if it loses thousands of troops in order to keep its control over the compound."

Maarat al-Numan has already fallen to Assad's opponents, effectively cutting the Aleppo highway. But without control of the nearby military base, their hold over the road is tenuous.

Hmood said he believed around 400 soldiers were defending Wadi al-Deif - a group of barracks barely 500 meters (yards) from the Damascus-Aleppo road and backed by air power that Assad has deployed against rebels and Maarat al-Numan residents.

The base may also be an important fuel depot, holding at least five million liters of kerosene in five underground bunkers, according to Hmood..

"The regime is bombarding Maarat al-Numan and the villages to pressure us to end the siege," he said. "By bombarding our families they want to force us to pull back."

Anti-Assad activists say 40 civilians were killed in air strikes on the town last Thursday in one of the most intense air offensives of the Syrian conflict.

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