BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops captured a famous Crusader citadel Thursday near the border with Lebanon after days of intense clashes with opposition fighters, in 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 the crackle of celebratory gunfire could be heard as troops moved around the sprawling fortress.
"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 the Syrian air force.
"The battle had been going on for more than a month during which several nearby villages were liberated," the colonel told Al-Mayadeen.
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 state news agency said "a number of terrorists were killed" as they tried to flee 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 in rebel hands 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.
Also Thursday, a senior humanitarian official said the first convoy carrying desperately needed aid supplies via Turkey is set to cross the border into Syria.
U.N. regional Humanitarian Coordinator Nigel Fisher said that trucks loaded with food supplies, blankets, mattresses, family kits and medical supplies bound for the Syrian city of Qamishli are leaving the Turkish border crossing at Nusaybin.
Fisher said in a statement that the delivery will mark the first time in three years that the U.N. has been able to deliver aid to Syria from via Turkey.
Previously, the Syrian government has refused to allow U.N. aid in through Turkey, which is a staunch supporter of the rebellion against President Bashar Assad.
The aid delivery comes almost a month after the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded immediate access everywhere in Syria to deliver humanitarian aid to millions of people in need.
The resolution doesn't threaten sanctions, but it does express the council's intention to take "further steps" if the resolution isn't implemented. The government and rebels hold several areas in the country under siege, leaving tens of thousands of people suffering from lack of food and medicine.
Despite the cross-border delivery, questions linger about the government's willingness to allow in aid to all areas in need. The first shipment will be limited to the Hassakeh governorate in the northeast, which is primarily controlled by Kurdish militias although the government retains some security outposts.
Meanwhile, the international mission to rid Syria of it chemical weapons said another batch of chemical agents was removed from the country Thursday, raising the total amount taken out of the country to nearly 50 percent.
The joint mission by the U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said in a statement a total of 11 consignments of chemicals have now been move out of Syria.
Assad's government has missed several deadlines on a timetable agreed last year to eradicate its chemical weapons by June 30, but insists it will meet the final deadline. It recently pledged to remove all chemicals by the end of April.
Associated Press writer Ryan Lucas contributed to this report.