CRAC DES CHEVALIERS, Syria: Standing at the gate of a Crusader castle captured from insurgents less than 24 hours before, a Syrian army officer declared Friday that forces loyal to President Bashar Assad were now in control of the western half of Homs province.
The securing of the area follows three months of gains by government forces against opposition groups and serves two aims – cutting rebel supply routes from Lebanon, which borders Homs, and securing a highway that connects the capital to the coast.
Controlling this road is especially important for Assad as it is used to transport chemical weapon agents to be shipped out and destroyed under an international agreement.
Syrian authorities, battling a three-year-long insurgency against Assad, blame security problems for being months behind schedule, citing attempted attacks on convoys carrying chemical agents last month.
Multiple army checkpoints punctuate the 160 km drive from Damascus to the Crac des Chevaliers fortress – a UNESCO World Heritage site – but no sign of opposition forces.
The Syrian army convoy and journalists passed by several towns in the Qalamoun mountain range that were also recently captured by the army.
Syrian soldiers raised the national flag on the battlements of Crac des Chevaliers Thursday after a three-month siege. Its fall followed the army’s retaking Sunday of Yabroud – one of the last rebel-held towns along the Damascus-Homs highway.
“We are in complete control of the western Homs countryside,” the officer told Reuters, without giving his name.
The hilltop fortress suffered mortar hits last year as rebels sheltered behind its thick stone walls, built for battles hundreds of years ago. The outer walls appeared intact and only minor damage inside, with some chipped stones and bullet holes.
Insurgents had left beds, plates and books inside the medieval arched rooms of the castle.
The officer said the rebels there were foreign extremists from “Saudi, Palestine and Lebanon.” The insurgents fled Thursday morning but were ambushed by the army. An army commander said at least 93 of them were killed en route to Lebanon.
More than 140,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict, which has become increasingly sectarian as rival regional powers have backed either Assad, a member of the Shiite offshoot Alawite sect, or the majority Sunni rebels.
With western Homs in government hands, nearly all Syrian areas bordering Lebanon are unsafe for rebels. The Lebanese group Hezbollah, which says Syrian rebels endanger Lebanon, has helped Assad in his fight to preserve four decades of dynastic rule.
Rebels opened fire near a municipal building of Al-Hameh Friday, 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.
In the north, rebels fired mortar bombs 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-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham, and the Islamist Ansar al-Sham.
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 Abdel-Rahman said the rebels took over a police station.