BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian soldiers backed by Hezbollah fighters recaptured on Monday the town of Maaloula, north of Damascus, military sources and state television said, closing off more of the rebel supply route through the Qalamoun mountains near Lebanon.
Islamist fighters, some from the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, took over a quarter of the ancient Christian town in December and held several nuns captive. In March, the nuns were released in an exchange deal with Qatari and Lebanese mediation.
“Units from the army and armed forces restores security and stability in the town of Maaloula,” state news agency SANA said.
In recent months, government forces have recaptured several rebel-held areas and border towns, closing off rebel supply routes from Lebanon and securing the main highway leading north from Damascus towards central Syria, Homs and the Mediterranean.
“They are inside Maaloula now. It is under their complete control including the monastery of Mar Thecla,” a military source in contact with government fighters on the ground said.
Maaloula, 5 km (3 miles) from the main road linking Damascus to Homs, has changed hands at least four times in a series of attacks and counter-assaults by rebels and government forces.
Control of the road would help secure President Bashar al-Assad’s grip over central Syria, and would also enable safe passage for hundreds of tons of chemical agents which are due to be shipped out of the country this year to be destroyed.
Assad, who was on the verge of defeat last year, said on Sunday that Syria’s conflict was at a “turning point” in his favor due to army gains.
In the last few weeks Assad’s forces have recaptured strategic towns along the Lebanon border including Yabroud and Rankous near Maaloula.
Maaloula’s churches and important monasteries attracted both Christian and Muslim pilgrims before the conflict. Some of its inhabitants still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ, and the monastery of Mar Thecla has a reputation for miraculous cures.
Syria’s Christian community, about 10 percent of the population, is wary of the rising power of Islamist groups within the rebel movement.
Only a small percentage of Christians have taken up arms in the civil war that broadly pits minorities, in particular Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, against the Sunni Muslim majority.
Reporting by Mariam Karouny; Editing by Louise Ireland