KWEYRIS (Syria) • Syria's army broke a more than year-long extremist siege of a military airbase in the country's north on Tuesday, scoring its first major breakthrough since Russia's air campaign began.
Troops, backed by pro-government militia, broke through the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group's siege of the Kweyris military airport in northern Aleppo province, a photographer working with Agence France-Presse said.
A group of soldiers penetrated ISIS lines west of the airport and reached government troops inside the base, firing into the air in celebration.
Experts said the base could be used by Russian planes in their air war against rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, aiding their efforts to retake the Syrian city of Aleppo.
Russia launched air strikes in Syria in support of Mr Assad at the end of September, but the regime has still struggled to advance against opposition forces and securing Kweyris would mark its first major victory in the Aleppo area.
But the advance came as at least 22 people were killed and 62 wounded in one of the bloodiest mortar attacks on the regime's coastal bastion of Latakia in the four-year conflict. Separately, one person was killed and five wounded in a mortar attack on residential areas of Damascus, while nine people were also killed in government rocket fire on the flashpoint town of Douma.
As the bloodshed continued, the UN's peace envoy for Syria urged world powers to build on the "momentum" of new international talks to end the conflict, which has killed more than 250,000 people.
Some 20 countries and international bodies will meet in Vienna on Saturday to push forward a peace plan for Syria that would include a ceasefire between Mr Assad's regime and some opposition groups.
The meetings must "bring some deliverables to the Syrian people - one of them should be reduction of violence", Mr Staffan de Mistura, the UN peace envoy for Syria, told reporters after briefing the UN Security Council.
"My job is to make sure that big countries like the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia and Iran come around the table and come up with a political process."
Ahead of the talks, Syrian opposition figures yesterday rejected a Russian draft proposal for a process aimed at ending the nearly five-year war, saying Moscow's aim was to keep Mr Assad in power and marginalise dissenting voices.
A draft document obtained by Reuters on Tuesday showed Moscow would like the Syrian government and opposition to agree on launching a constitutional reform process of up to 18 months, followed by early presidential elections.
Russia, which with Iran has been Mr Assad's top ally during the civil war, has denied any document is being prepared before international peace talks in Vienna this week. The text obtained by Reuters does not rule out Mr Assad's participation in early presidential elections, something his enemies say is impossible if there is to be peace.
"The Syrian people have never accepted the dictatorship of Assad and they will not accept that it is reintroduced or reformulated in another way," said Mr Monzer Akbik, a member of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition. "The Russians are now trying to play the game they have been playing since Geneva," he told Reuters, referring to UN-led peace talks that collapsed last year.
On Tuesday, US Air Force General Herbert Carlisle said communications with Russia have vastly improved since the start of Moscow's bombing campaign, with twice-daily talks and a hotline set up.
Meanwhile, France said on Tuesday it had stepped up its bombing campaign against ISIS' oil infrastructure with new raids in eastern Syria as part of its third wave of strikes under a US-led air campaign.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE. REUTERS