The Syrian army ousted rebels from a massive Crusader fortress after fierce fighting, killing at least 93 of them as they fled to Lebanon, an army commander told reporters during a government-led tour of the area on Friday.
Reporters were shown signs of a precipitous flight from Crac des Chevaliers, or Fortress of the Knights, by opposition fighters, including food on a burning makeshift stove, as well as collapsed walls, staircases and other damage from the multiple rounds of fighting at the UNESCO World Heritage site since rebels first seized it about three years ago.
The Thursday fall of the imposing hilltop citadel is as much symbolic as strategic, being the latest in a string of government victories near the frontier with Lebanon, which is used by rebels as a conduit for recruits and supplies.
Reporters on the tour found most of the 11th-century fortress and its external walls intact, but saw extensive damage inside, in the lower courtyard where fires — apparently set by rebels entrenched inside the fortress — have ravaged ancient pillars, while some archways and vaults have collapsed.
Blocs of grey stone littered the ground, but it is unclear if the damage was caused during Thursday’s capture or earlier bombardments.
“We acted in a way to preserve the Crac, to make sure it would not be damaged,” a colonel who escorted the journalists said.
In July 2011 — four months after the war erupted — Sunni villagers from al-Hosn seized the fortress and were soon joined by allied rebels, including Lebanese fighters.
Islamist fighters also occupied the castle, including from al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate and from the Jund al-Sham group.
The Crac ranks as one of the best preserved examples of medieval fortresses from the times of the Crusaders, according to UNESCO.
Like other Crusader castles in the Middle East, it sits atop a hill that dominates the landscape as far as the eye can see.
Initially, Abbassid Muslims built the fortress on the hill in 1031, but the bulk of the existing fortress was built by the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, which was given the castle in 1142.
There were further fortifications built toward the end of the 13th century by the Mamluks, who seized it from the Crusaders.
The Crac was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list in 2006, one of six Syrian sites to get the label. Last year, UNESCO added all six of the sites to its World Heritage in Danger list, including the Old Cities of Damascus and Aleppo, Palmyra and the Qalat Salaheddin fortress.
The move reflected growing concern that serious damage was being inflicted on the sites, as the war rages on with no sign of stopping.
The colonel escorting the journalists said the army took the estimated 700 rebels living in the Crac by surprise on Thursday and seized the castle in a 12-hour operation.
He said his troops overran the castle in the early afternoon. They refused to grant about 300 rebels held up inside 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 ,adding that several of his men had died in the battle.
The commander did not give the group of journalists his name in line with regulations.
The nearby village of al-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 on 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.