Islamist rebels have captured a major airbase from government forces in Syria's northwestern Idlib province, expelling all of President Bashar al-Assad’s military, according to Syrian state television and a war monitoring group.
Wednesday's report is the latest in a series of setbacks in recent months in the nearly five-year civil war which has claimed more than 250,000 lives and forced more than four million Syrians out of their home country.
State TV reported the military retreat from Abu Duhur military airport, where the Islamist extremists had imposed a nearly two-year-long siege.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front and allied Islamist groups are now in control of the facility, which state TV confirmed had been evacuated by Syrian forces.
Province's last stronghold
The coalition, the "Army of Conquest," took over the city of Idlib, the provincial capital, and several other areas earlier this year. The airport had been one of the military's last remaining strongholds in the province.
Meanwhile, Russia's Foreign Ministry confirmed for the first time Wednesday that Russian military experts are in Syria. A spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, said that the aid was intended to combat the unprecedented rise of terrorist threats in Syria and in Iraq.
"Our country has long been supplying arms and military equipment to Syria in accordance with bilateral contracts," said Zakharova.
"There are also Russian military experts in Syria who are instructing [the Syrians] on the use of the military systems being delivered. It is known that there is a material and technical supplies service facility of the Russian navy in Tartus," she said. "The weapons which are handed over to the Syrian army are aimed at combating the terrorist threat that has risen to an unprecedented scale in Syria and in neighboring Iraq."
Zakharova added that Moscow would consider additional military aid for fighting terrorism in Syria if it deemed it necessary, but in accordance with the international law.
"If there is a need from our side for additional measures to increase support for the anti-terrorist fight, this question will be reviewed in an appropriate way. But in any case [this will be done] on the basis of international law and Russian legislation," said Zakharova.
The United States, which opposes Assad's government, has raised suspicions in recent days that Russia has been aiding his forces.
Washington has demanded some countries not to allow Russian flights through their air space, a move Moscow denounced on Wednesday as "international boorishness."