DAMASCUS, Syria — Syrian government forces on Tuesday broke a siege imposed by the Islamic State group on a northern military air base since 2013, marking the first major achievement by President Bashar Assad's troops since Russia began its airstrikes in late September, state media said.
A state TV report said government forces have met with troops that were defending the Kweiras air base in the northern province of Aleppo. Syrian troops, backed by pro-government gunmen, launched a large-scale offensive to reach the base last month under the cover of Russian airstrikes.
IS has been besieging the base since 2013 when they defeated rival militant groups who had already been surrounding the base for a year.
"We are inside the air base," a Syrian soldier that took part in the offensive told state TV Tuesday evening. "We have met our friends and the situation is good."
Tuesday's push is a major victory for the government against IS — which controls nearly half of Syria. Syrian troops tried in the past to reach the air base with no luck but Russian airstrikes appear to have helped in forcing IS from the area.
IS fighters had been besieging the nearly 1,000 soldiers inside the base since 2013, but the forces there have managed to hold on despite repeated attacks using multiple suicide bombings.
Another officer speaking from the base told state TV "with the liberation of Kweiras, we will liberate other areas."
The forces held on to the base for two years, apparently knowing that their fate would be death if they were captured.
Last year, IS killed more than 160 Syrian government troops seized in a military base in the northern province of Raqqa. In a video released at the time, dozens of terrified young conscripts were made to run while stripped down to their underwear before being killed.
Earlier Tuesday, militants shelled the coastal Syrian city of Latakia, killing at least 16 and wounding 53, state media reported, in one of the deadliest attacks on the government stronghold in recent months.
State news agency SANA said the shells were fired by militants affiliated with al-Qaida's branch in Syria, known as the Nusra Front, and the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham group.
Syrian state TV said two shells hit an area near Tishrin University on Tuesday afternoon. TV footage showed at least one car on fire and several others, including a minibus, hit with shrapnel. Blood could be seen on the road.
Latakia has been spared the worst of Syria's civil war but has recently been shelled on several occasions.
The latest shelling came during an offensive by government forces in the mountains near the city under the cover of Russian airstrikes. Russian warplanes have been taking off from a military air base south of Latakia since Sept. 30, carrying out strikes around Syria.
Also Tuesday, residents in Syria's capital Damascus said rebels shelled several neighborhoods in the city. SANA said the shelling killed one person and wounded five.
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