DAMASCUS - Syrian troops recaptured a famed Crusader castle from rebels Thursday, marking a significant advance in their drive to seal off the Lebanese border and sever enemy supply lines.
The army "raises the flag of the nation over the Krak des Chevaliers castle in Homs province, after crushing the terrorists who were holed up there," state television said.
Government forces entered the fort, held by the opposition since July 2011, after fierce clashes in the nearby village of Al-Hosn.
Lebanon's private Al-Mayadeen TV, sympathetic to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, broadcast live images of troops atop one of the 11th century castle's towers, raising the Syrian flag.
A pro-regime militia chief said the fighting killed at least 40 rebels, including the leader of jihadist group Jund al-Sham, Khaled al-Mahmud, better known as Abu Suleiman al-Muhajer.
The offensive is one of two major operations by the army near the border with Lebanon aimed at cutting off rebel supply routes.
The army, backed by fighters from Lebanon's Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah, is also fighting to seal the border in the Qalamun region, where it seized the last major rebel bastion of Yabrud on Sunday.
Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre, said he expected the army to win more strategic victories along the Homs and Damascus provincial borders with Lebanon.
Losing the border would have limited effect on the opposition's weapons supplies, he said, but "in terms of general logistics, communications, and small localised safe havens, its value is well established."
As the army shelled the area around Al-Hosn, dozens of people tried to flee to Lebanon, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 60 people were "killed or injured" in the process.
A Lebanese security source said some 60 people were wounded by army fire as they crossed the river that divides the two countries.
The mainly Sunni Muslim area of north Lebanon, whose residents are largely sympathetic to the rebels fighting to overthrow Assad, has come under frequent cross-border shelling by his forces.
It is home to thousands of families who have fled the three-year-old conflict.
Smuggling routes used by opposition forces to move fighters and weapons back and forth between Lebanon and Syria pass through the area.