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

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A Syrian soldier lifts up his machine gun during a 2013 rally in the southern city of Sweida

A Syrian soldier lifts up his machine gun during a 2013 rally in the southern city of Sweida (AFP Photo/Anwar Amro)

Beirut (AFP) - 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.

Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad maintained control over the airport and its surrounding areas despite losing 20 fighters. At least 15 IS jihadists were killed.

Syria's official news agency SANA said the army had "blocked attempts from IS terrorists to infiltrate" areas near the airport.

Khalkhalah lies along a major highway between Damascus and the regime-held city of Sweida, a stronghold of the Druze minority that has largely avoided the bloodshed of Syria's war.

The attack on Khalkhalah was the first by IS, but the airport has been previously targeted by rebels and Syria's Al-Qaeda affiliate.

In March, 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.

Rebels 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 and 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.

- Kurds counter IS offensive -

IS militants were also fought back in the northeast province of Hasakeh, where Kurdish militia took on the extremist group in bloody clashes Friday night.

The Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) "retook at least four checkpoints and a number of neighbourhoods" around the town of Tal Tamr, Abdel Rahman told AFP.

He said the Kurds had launched a "counter-offensive" against an IS assault on the town that began in February, adding that in the past 24 hours, seven YPG fighters and 24 IS militants were killed.

Though small, Tal Tamr has strategic value because it lies on a road that runs east across the Iraqi border to IS's bastion in Mosul, as well as north to the Turkish border.

IS has seized over a dozen villages around Tal Tamr, said Abdel Rahman, adding that the group was attacking the town to make up for losses in other parts of Hasakeh.

The US-led coalition fighting IS in Syria and Iraq also conducted air strikes on IS positions around Tal Tamr on Friday, he added.

The coalition began targeting IS around the town last month after Kurdish forces appealed for international action, and has provided air support for the YPG elsewhere in northern Syria, including the flashpoint border town of Kobane.

In the northern city of Aleppo, at least five people were killed and dozens wounded in rocket attacks Saturday on the Christian neighbourhood of Suleimaniyah.

"The death toll will likely rise as there are a number of people in critical condition," Abdel Rahman said.

State television reported the attack but said "terrorist shelling" had killed eight people.

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.