By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN (Reuters) - A coalition of Islamist rebels seized an army base in northwestern Syria at dawn on Monday after a suicide bomber from al Qaeda's Nusra Front drove a truck packed with explosives into the compound and blew it up.
The capture, reported by a rebel commander and social media videos showing militants inside the base, brought the coalition closer to seizing most of Idlib province and moving toward Latakia, the ancestral home of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The army had been using the Qarmeed camp to shell rebel-held towns and villages in the strategic agricultural region bordering Turkey. Controlling it should help the rebels tighten their siege on the major Mastouma army base nearby.
Syrian state media said the army killed scores of Nusra fighters and dozens of Islamist suicide bombers from Russia's Chechnya region in fighting near the base, but did not say the compound had fallen to the militants.
"A truck with two tonnes of explosives penetrated one of the entrances of the camp that made it easier to take over the camp," Sheikh Husam Abu Bakr, a rebel commander from Ahrar al-Sham movement said via Skype.
The coalition of hardline Sunni Islamist rebels includes Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa, but not the rival Islamic State group that controls large tracts of Syria and Iraq.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collects information from both sides of the conflict, said two suicide bombers blew themselves up at the gates of the camp.
"This was one of the major bases of the regime in Idlib and had lot of weapons," said Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman, adding at least seven tanks, large ammunition caches and scores of rocket launchers were seized by the rebels.
Syria has recently stepped up its accusations that Turkey is aiding the rebels and allowing thousands of radical foreign jihadi fighters into the country, which made it possible for them to seize the city of Idlib last month.
That was the second provincial city after Islamic State-controlled Raqqa to fall to anti-Assad rebels since the start of the four-year conflict. On Saturday, the coalition captured the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shughour.
The Observatory said 73 people, many of them women and children, were killed in retaliatory raids on civilian homes and markets in rebel-held towns and villages in the last 24 hours.
At least 53 civilians were killed in air force bombing in the town of Darkoush northwest of Idlib when the air force bombed a busy market place and a center where displaced refugee were taking cover, it said.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Tom Heneghan)