Syrian troops capture Crusades-era citadel

BASSEM MROUE
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This Tuesday, March. 18, 2014 photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center (AMC), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a Syrian man helping a wounded man from the scene after a government airstrike in Aleppo, Syria. Activists said Syrian warplanes and helicopter gunships carried out several air raids in the northern province of Aleppo on Tuesday killing and wounding a number of people. (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center AMC)

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops captured a famous Crusades-era citadel Thursday near the border with Lebanon after days of intense clashes against opposition fighters, the latest victory by government forces in the border area, state media and officials said.

Lebanese private broadcaster Al-Mayadeen TV aired live footage of Syrian troops raising the national flag on the towering hilltop perch of the Crac des Chevaliers. The structure appeared intact and cracks of celebratory gunfire could be heard as troops moved around the sprawling area.

"Our efforts, those of the Syrian Arab Army and the National Defense Forces, were crowned today by raising the Syrian flag on the Crac des Chevaliers," an unnamed Syrian army colonel told Al-Mayadeen.

Syrian state television said troops "wiped out terrorists who were entrenched in the castle." Syrian authorities refer to opposition fighters as terrorists.

A Homs-based activist who goes with the name of Beibares Tellawi told The Associated Press that the castle fell into the hands of government troops earlier Thursday, a day after rebels and the government agreed that opposition fighters be given safe passage to Lebanon. He added that troops captured al-Hosn village, where the citadel is located, after an intense bombardment by Syrian air force.

"The battle had been going on for more than a month during which several nearby villages were liberated," the colonel said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighting around al-Hosn killed 12 fighters Thursday. The dead included the local leader of the Jund al-Sham Islamic group. Lebanese television stations identified the dead commander as Abu Suleiman Dandashi, a Lebanese national.

Syria's news agency SANA said "a number of terrorists were killed" as they tried to flee from al-Hosn toward Lebanon. An activist in Homs who goes by the name of Samer al-Homsi said people fleeing al-Hosn were ambushed near the Lebanon border and many are feared dead.

The Crac des Chevaliers, one of the world's best-preserved castles from the era of the Crusades, had been held by rebels since 2012. The citadel dates back to the 11th and 13th century.

Last week, the United Nations warned that ancient Christian and Muslim sites in Syria are under attack and demanded an immediate halt to the destruction of the country's cultural heritage.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova and the joint U.N.-Arab League mediator on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, issued a joint statement citing "alarming reports" that Syrian historical sites are being deliberately targeted for ideological reasons.

Six sites in Syria have been designated as World Heritage sites by UNESCO, the U.N.'s cultural and educational agency, and the officials said some have suffered "considerable and sometimes irreversible damage." They listed the Crac des Chevaliers as one of them.

Syrian troops have been on the offensive over the past months in areas close to the Lebanese border, aiming to cut rebel supply lines.

Earlier Thursday, Syrian troops closed a border crossing with northern Lebanon because of the heavy fighting.

The fighting forced dozens of wounded to pour across the boundary to seek help in Lebanon, officials and activists said.

The fighting on the Syrian side was so intense that stray bullets and rockets landed in Lebanon around Wadi Khaled, according to Lebanon's state-run National News Agency.

A Lebanese man in Wadi Khaled was wounded and rushed to a nearby hospital, the report said.