HOSN, Syria (AP) — The Syrian army ousted rebels from a massive Crusader fortress after several hours of fierce fighting, killing at least 93 of them as they fled to neighboring Lebanon, an army commander told reporters on a government-led tour of the area Friday.
Reporters were shown signs of a precipitous flight from Crac des Chevaliers by the opposition fighters, including food on a burning makeshift stove left behind untouched, as well as collapsed walls and staircases and other damage from the multiple rounds of fighting in the UNESCO World Heritage site since rebels first seized it in 2012.
The Thursday fall of the imposing hilltop citadel is as much symbolic as strategic. It is the latest in a string of government victories near the frontier with Lebanon, used by rebels as a conduit for recruits and supplies.
The nearby village of Hosn was devastated in the fighting, with several houses leveled. Reporters moving through the village with the army escort saw several cars burning, with thick, black smoke billowing into the air. Most of the villagers have fled previous fighting, although about 50 people, mostly women and children, were seen leaving the village Friday.
It was not clear if all the damage to the Crac and Hosn village was from Thursday's battle that started at dawn, according to the commander. He said his troops overran the castle in the early afternoon. He said they refused to grant about 300 rebels held up in the castle safe passage from the fortress and made the final push into it after seeing the rebels fleeing, the commander said.
At least 93 rebels were killed at that point, the commander said. He did not say how many were killed in the several hours of fighting it took to take the castle, but acknowledged that several of his men died in Thursday's battle for the Crac.
The commander spoke to reporters on a government tour of the site. He didn't give his name in line with regulations.
The Crac des Chevaliers is considered one of the best-preserved castles from the era of the Crusades. But, like with nearly all of Syria's rich archaeological and cultural heritage sites, the 3-year-old conflict has taken its toll. Over the past 18 months, amateur videos posted online have shown shelling and airstrikes hitting the thick stone ramparts.
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.
President Bashar Assad's forces have been on the offensive in the area close to the border with Lebanon since November. In the past two weeks alone, they have sized at least four towns and villages near the border as part of army effort to sever opposition supply lines across the rugged, mountainous frontier.
The sharpest blow to the rebels came with the fall of their stronghold of Yabroud near Lebanon's eastern border on Sunday. With Yabroud, the rebels lost a major smuggling hub, through which fighters moved weapons and troops into opposition-held suburbs of Damascus.
Months-long encirclement of those neighborhoods with checkpoints and troops has weakened the exhausted and hungry civilians' support for the opposition fighters. The rebels' mortar attacks on the capital have significantly fallen in recent weeks, although the threat the Assad's seat of power has not entirely disappeared.
On Friday, rebels opened fire near a municipal building of Hameh, a Damascus suburb, killing a manager of a nearby bakery and wounding the chairman of a local reconciliation committee, Hussam Skaf, Syria's official news agency SANA said.
Skaf is the third local official of the committees, who often led talks on local cease-fires between the opposition and the government in the districts around Damascus, reported by SANA to have been targeted by the rebels in recent weeks. One of the other two was killed and other's fate was unclear from the report.
It was not possible to independently corroborate the report.
In the north, rebels fired mortar rounds into two government-held districts of Aleppo, killing six people and wounding 20 others, SANA said.
Also Friday, rebels launched an offensive in the coastal province of Latakia, which is the ancestral home of the Assad family and a stronghold of his Alawite sect.
The operation, dubbed "Al-Anfal" and announced in a video posted online, is spearheaded by three rebel groups — the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, the ultraconservative Ahrar Al-Sham, and the Islamist Ansar Al-Sham.
Shortly after the announcement was made, clashes erupted in the village of Kasab in northern Latakia near the Turkish border, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman said the rebels took over a police station in the fighting.
Associated Press writers Barbara Surk in Beirut and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.