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Assad's troops seize fortress from Crusades

| Thursday, March 20, 2014, 7:54 p.m.

Syrian troops on Thursday captured a famed Crusader castle near the border with Lebanon — running the two-starred government flag high above the stone ramparts of the 12th-century fortress.

Troops captured the castle — considered one of the world's best-preserved castles from the era of the Crusade — after days of intense clashes with rebel fighters.

Lebanon's private broadcaster, Al-Mayadeen TV, aired footage of Syrian soldiers walking unopposed into Crac des Chevaliers, the towering hilltop citadel. The loud crackle of celebratory gunfire could be heard as troops explored the sprawling castle, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The military's push into the Crac des Chevaliers marked the latest in a string of battlefield gains for President Bashar Assad's forces. Government troops have seized at least four towns and villages in the past two weeks near the border with Lebanon as the army tries to sever the opposition's supply lines.

The sharpest blow to the rebels occurred on Sunday with the fall of Yabroud, their stronghold near Lebanon's eastern border.

The government's capture of the Crac des Chevaliers — which dominates the surrounding valley and terraced hills below — marked another painful setback, for symbolic reasons as much as strategic. Rebels controlled the castle since 2012.

“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. “The battle had been going on for more than a month.”

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

An activist based in the nearby city of Homs said the citadel fell into the hands of government troops early on Thursday — a day after rebels and the government agreed that opposition fighters be given safe passage to Lebanon.

The Crac des Chevaliers is considered one of the world's best-preserved castles from the era of the Crusades.

he activist, who goes with the name of Beibares Tellawi, told The Associated Press that troops captured Hosn, the town at the foot of the castle, after an intense bombardment by the Syrian air force.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighting around 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 Hosn toward Lebanon. An activist in Homs who goes by the name of Samer al-Homsi said people fleeing Hosn were ambushed near the Lebanon border and many were feared dead.

The Crac des Chevaliers is considered one of the world's best-preserved castles from the era of the Crusades. But, like nearly all of Syria's rich archaeological and cultural heritage sites, the current conflict has taken a terrible toll on the citadel. Over the past 18 months, amateur videos posted online have shown shelling and airstrikes hitting the thick stone ramparts.

In the footage broadcast Thursday, the fortress looked fairly intact from the outside.

Still, damage to the Crac des Chevaliers and Syria's other cultural gems prompted the United Nations last week to warn that ancient Christian and Muslim sites in the country are under attack and to demand 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.

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