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Islamic State militants seize part of north Syria army base ‘Syria chemicals being destroyed abroad’

BEIRUT, July 24, (Agencies): Fighters from the extremist Islamic State group on Thursday overran part of an army base in northern Syria, which has been under the militants’ siege for months, in ferocious battles that killed or wounded dozens on both sides, activists said. The battle over the base is the latest in the Islamic State’s push to capture as much of Syrian territory as it can. Since June, the group has seized a huge chunk of territory straddling the Iraq-Syria border, where they have declared a self-styled caliphate. The base lies in Raqqa province, where much of the territory fell to the Syrian opposition last year. Earlier this year, the Islamic State, which sided with the rebels at the start of the Syrian conflict three years ago, captured much of Raqqa and has tried to capture the base several times. The assault on the base began around midnight on Wednesday with two suicide car bombs, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Syrian army helicopters fought back, targeting jihadi positions around the base, the activist group said.

The Observatory said 35 Islamic State fighters died and that dozens of government troops were killed or wounded, including six soldiers who were beheaded. It said both sides exchanged mortar and artillery fire. The Syrian air force carried out 12 raids around Division 17 and the nearby provincial capital of Raqqa, which is also controlled by the Islamic State, said the Local Coordination Committees, another activist group. It said army helicopters were dropping barrel bombs around the base. Elsewhere on Thursday, Islamic State fighters stormed the headquarters of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ruling Baath party in the northeastern city of Hassakeh in the predominantly Kurdish province that carries the same name, activists said. Black banners of the Islamic State were seen raised over the Baath party building, the Observatory said. Juan Mohammed, a Kurdish official in Hassakeh, said there were two explosions near the building but he added that he had no immediate information about whether the Islamic State had stormed the Baath headquarters. In their push, the Islamic State fighters have also captured much of Syria’s oilrich eastern province of Deir el-Zour, which borders Iraq.

Last week, the jihadis captured a gas field in the central province of Homs, an attack that left more than 200 people dead. Meanwhile, Around 700 tonnes of Syria’s chemical agents have been delivered to specialised destruction facilities in Britain, Finland and the US, the watchdog in charge of the mission said Thursday. “All 1,300 metric tonnes of chemicals removed from Syria by the international maritime operation have been delivered to destruction facilities outside the country,” the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said in a statement. The remaining around 600 tonnes of Syria’s declared chemical arsenal is currently being destroyed aboard a US military ship at a secret location at sea. “Destruction activities are now underway in all locations,” the OPCW said. A plan has also finally been agreed for the destruction of Syria’s 12 former chemical weapons production facilities, the OPCW said.

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