Syrian government troops have seized the ancient Christian town of Maaloula from rebels, a day after the president, Bashar al-Assad, said the three-year old civil war was turning in his favour.
Al-Manar TV, which is owned by the Lebenese Shia group Hezbollah, said three of its journalisrs were killed during the operation on Monday.
“The army has taken full control of Maaloula and restored security and stability. Terrorism has been defeated in Qalamun,” a security official said.
The AFP news agency in Maaloula said the Al-Safir hotel, which rebels had been using as a base, was almost completely destroyed.
Downhill from the hotel, the Mar Sarkis Greek Catholic monastery was also damaged, its walls pierced by mortar rounds, and icons and other religious objects strewn on the ground inside.
“The village was taken quickly. This morning we took Al-Sarkha village… then we came towards Maaloula,” a soldier told AFP.
During the operation, Al-Manar said Hamza al-Hajj Hassan, a correspondent, technician Halim Allaw and cameraman Mohammad Mantash were killed, and expressed its condolences.
The three were fired on as they approached an area of town not yet been secured by the army, according to witnesses.
Their deaths bring to more than 30 the number of journalists killed covering Syria’s war, which Reporters Without Borders describes as the world’s most dangerous conflict to report on.
Fall of towns confirmed
The regime has prioritised capturing the area to protect the highway linking Damascus to Homs that runs through the region, as well as to sever rebel supply lines across the border with Lebanon.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists in Syria, said that both Sarkha and Maaloula had fallen to government forces.
The seizure of the towns comes a day after Syrian troops backed by fighters from Hezbollah captured the nearby town of Rankous.
Rebels seized Maaloula in early December.
Elsewhere in Syria on Monday, fighter jets struck parts of the central city of Homs that have been under suffocating government siege since June 2012, the Syrian Observatory said.
Activist Abu Ziad, who is trapped inside, told AFP via the internet that there has been a marked escalation in the bombing of besieged areas, with the army “trying to storm [the rebel areas] under cover of fire”.
Earlier this year, the UN evacuated about 3,000 people from the area.
According to Abu Ziad, up to 180 civilians including 60 activists and more than 1,200 rebel fighters, remain inside.
Meanwhile, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Syria has surrendered “65.1 percent” of its chemical weapons arsenal, “including 57.4 percent of priority chemicals”.
Syria’s agreement to hand over its chemical stockpile has been delayed by fighting and security concerns.