35 dead as Syria forces repel IS attack on airport: monitor


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File picture shows Syrian government soldiers in the key southern city of Sweida File picture shows Syrian government soldiers in the key southern city of Sweida


Pro-government forces repelled an attack on a key Syrian military airport by Islamic State group affiliated militants, losing 20 fighters but killing almost as many jihadists, a monitor said Saturday.
"Militants who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group attacked the outskirts of the Khalkhalah military airport in Sweida province on Friday," said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad had been able to maintain control over the airport and its surrounding areas despite losing 20 fighters. At least 15 IS jihadists were killed.
Khalkhalah airport lies along a major highway that links the southern regime-held city of Sweida to Damascus.
"The area is important because it's Druze and borders Damascus province," Abdel Rahman told AFP, referring to the minority sect that considers Sweida its stronghold.
Sweida province has largely avoided the bloodshed of Syria's war.
"The red lines that had been in place about attacking these areas have been broken," Abdel Rahman said.
The Assad regime claims to protect Syria's minorities against foreign-backed Islamists.
But attacks on minority communities have increased with the rise of IS, which regularly targets such sects in Syria, as well as Sunnis it accuses of violating its interpretation of Islam.
On March 25, Syrian rebels and Islamist fighters seized the town of Bosra al-Sham, which is south of Sweida but located along the same highway as Khalkhalah airport.
Also on Friday, Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate withdrew from a key area along Syria's border with Jordan, the Observatory said.
Rebel groups and the Al-Nusra Front took control of the Nasib crossing in the southern province of Daraa from regime forces last month.
Nasib had been under attack by moderate rebel forces, but fell shortly after Al-Nusra joined the ongoing offensive.
The jihadists, along with the other rebels, held the checkpoint, the duty-free zone between the two crossings, and the customs area.
Al-Nusra withdrew from the checkpoint last week and left the other areas Friday.
"The other fighters asked them to leave Nasib because they weren't in the fight to begin with," Abdel Rahman said.
To the north, at least five people were killed and dozens wounded in rocket attacks Saturday on a Christian neighbourhood of Aleppo city.
"The death toll will likely rise as there are a number of people in critical condition," Abdel Rahman said.
State television also reported the attack but said six people were killed in "terrorist shelling".
Government forces regularly pound rebel-held areas from the air, and opposition fighters fire rockets and mortar rounds into regime-controlled neighbourhoods.
More than 215,000 people have been killed in Syria's four-year war, which is increasingly dominated by jihadist groups.

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