DAMASCUS, Syria, Jan. 22 (UPI) -- Rebels in northern Syria have their hopes pinned on the fall of the Mannagh airbase, a major piece of the region's remaining government-controlled territory.
In what they call "the final battle," rebels have been engaged in a month-long siege of the well-fortified helicopter base near the Syrian border with Turkey, underscoring a year-long transition from being the hunted to now encircling and attacking some of the largest military bases in the country, CNN reported Tuesday.
"The day the airport falls will be a holiday," said a local farmer who identified himself as Abu Yashar.
Syrian warplanes and tanks targeted rebel strongholds around Damascus, officials said.
Fighter jets struck Douma, northeast of Damascus, and tanks shelled Darya and Moadamiyat al-Sham, southwest of the capital, as well as Yalda and Beit Sahem, south of Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in London said Tuesday.
Fighting continued in the predominantly Kurdish city of Ras al-Ein near the Turkish border, the human rights group said, noting so far some 56 people have been killed in six days of fighting in the border town.
At least 178 people were reported killed across Syria Monday in fierce fighting that has claimed more than 60,000 lives since March 2011. Thirty people said to be loyal to President Bashar Assad were among those killed in a suicide car bombing near a carpet factory in eastern Hama, CNN said.
In Beirut, the first batch of Russians who fled Syria prepared to board planes home. Irina Rossius of the Russian Emergencies Ministry said the country would send two planes to evacuate its nationals.
Reports from Russia said about 50 people traveling in three buses, accompanied by Russian diplomats crossed the border into Lebanon Tuesday.
Yelena Suponina, a Moscow political analyst specializing in the Middle East, said the departure from Syria represents the beginning of an evacuation, but noted most of those who left Tuesday were women and children.
"I would say it is a symbolic moment, but not necessarily a turning point," she said.
The move was the latest sign the Kremlin may be preparing for the collapse of the Assad government, the Los Angeles Times said. The newspaper said more than 100 evacuees, mainly women and children, are expected to board the planes.
The newspaper said the number of people to be evacuated was just a fraction of the thousands of Russian nationals in Syria. It said one Russian observer said the arrival of the planes might be a precursor to a larger-scale evacuation.
Russia has already disclosed contingency plans for a massive naval evacuation of thousands of its nationals, the Los Angeles Times said.