(Reuters) – Syrian soldiers backed by Hezbollah fighters recaptured the town of Maaloula, north of Damascus, on Monday, military sources and state television said, further squeezing rebels’ supply routes through the Qalamoun mountains into Lebanon.
Islamist fighters, some from the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, had taken over part of the ancient Christian town in December and held several nuns captive until releasing them in March in a prisoner-exchange deal.
Government forces have recaptured several rebel-held areas and border towns in recent months, closing off supply routes from Lebanon and securing the main highway leading north from Damascus toward central Syria, Homs and the Mediterranean.
“They are inside Maaloula now. It is under their complete control, including the monastery of Mar Thecla,” said a military source in contact with government fighters on the ground.
At another ancient Christian site, Mar Sarkis – a Greek Orthodox monastery dating back to the fourth century and located on a hilltop above Maaloula – a Reuters witness saw crosses and pictures of saints smashed and covered with dust on the floor.
“God willing, the army will be able to free all of the Qalamoun area within days,” a Syrian army officer in Maaloula told Reuters. “Most of the terrorists have been killed and others fled to nearby villages.
“We can say that 80% of Qalamoun is under the control of the Syrian army.”
Syrian state television aired pictures of bodies it said were Nusra fighters killed during the offensive.
Maaloula, 5 km (3 miles) from the main road linking Damascus to Homs, has changed hands at least four times in attacks and counter-assaults by rebels and government forces…