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Syrian Rebels Capture Air Base

Syrian rebels have captured a military airport near the Iraqi border, prompting a retaliatory air strike by regime forces, according to opposition activists. The capture of the airbase came as Turkey was said to be on the brink of asking Nato for missiles to help defend its border with Syria. Separately, France became the first western country to formally establish diplomatic links with a new Syrian opposition movement as President François Hollande announced the appointment of a new Syrian envoy to Paris. Video footage published on Saturday by rebel groups showed fighters patrolling Hamdan airbase, a former agricultural hub in Deir el-Zour province that the government had only recently converted to military use. Control of the base would strengthen recent rebel gains in the civil war that activists say has killed 38,000 people since it was triggered early last year by a government clampdown on peaceful protests. If the rebels retain Hamdan it would leave only one airbase in government hands. It would also consolidate their control of Abu Kamal, a border city of more than 60,000, according to Rami Abdulrahman, head of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. "These new captures mean that the largest territory outside of regime control is now the region along the Iraqi border in Deir el-Zour," he said. There was no immediate response from the Syrian government or state television to the activists' claims. In a sign of deepening unease among Syria's neighbours, Turkey is expected to formally ask Nato to set up missiles on its border to prevent a spillover from the conflict, a German newspaper reported. The Munich-based Sueddeutsche Zeitung, quoting unnamed sources, said up to 170 German soldiers could be deployed as part of the mission. Turkey said on Friday it had intensified talks with Nato allies on how to tighten security along its 560-mile frontier with Syria after mortar rounds fired from Syria landed in its territory. "As we have said before, there have been talks between Turkey and Nato and Nato allies on various issues regarding the security risks and challenges and possible responses to issues regarding Turkey-Nato territories," a Turkish government official told Reuters in response to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung report. "Normally we could not reveal the nature of Nato deliberations while they continue." A spokeswoman for Nato, which has previously promised to help protect Turkey, said she could not confirm the report. "There hasn't been a request from Turkey. If there is a request from Turkey, of course allies will consider it," she said. On Saturday France, a harsh critic of Bashar al-Assad's government, became the first country to formally recognise a newly formed Syrian opposition coalition, following talks between Hollande and the coalition head, Mouaz al-Khatib. Both men later announced the appointment of Mounzir Makhous, an academic, as an ambassador to Paris. Britain has said it would like to recognise the coalition but negotiations were "at an early stage". The foreign secretary, William Hague, has urged the coalition to set out a credible plan for political transition and widen its support among the Syrian people. In a further development, a Turkish cameraman seized by Syrian forces while covering fighting in the city of Aleppo has been released following negotiations with his captors, Turkish media reported. Cuneyt Unal and reporter Bashar Fahmi, a Jordanian citizen of Palestinian origin, went missing in August while on assignment for the US-based Alhurra TV. There was no information on Fahmi's whereabouts.

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