Damascus - Syrian regime forces seized famed Crusader fort Krak des Chevaliers on Thursday, killing dozens of rebels in the surrounding area and sending scores fleeing across the nearby Lebanese border.
“The Syrian Arab 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.
Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen TV, a private broadcaster sympathetic to Syria's government, broadcast live footage from the fort.
Regime forces could be seen atop one of the castle's towers, raising the flag of the Syrian government.
They entered the fort after fierce clashes in the nearby village of Al-Hosn, which a pro-regime militia chief said had left at least 40 rebels dead.
Among those killed was the leader of the jihadist Jund al-Sham, Khaled al-Mahmud. He was better known by his nom de guerre Abu Suleiman al-Muhajer, the National Defence Forces commander said.
As the army shelled the area around Al-Hosn, dozens of people tried to flee for neighbouring Lebanon.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 60 people “killed or injured” as they fled for the border.
Some 60 people were wounded by army fire as they crossed the river that divides the two countries, a Lebanese security source said.
The Britain-based group was unable to confirm a precise death toll, but said that among the casualties were both civilians and fighters.
Syrian army tanks also shelled the border area, causing at least one house in northern Lebanon's Wadi Khaled district to burn down.
“The situation is very bad,” Wadi Khaled doctor Tareq Dandashi told AFP.
“The whole of Al-Hosn has fled to Lebanon, and the Syrian army has been targeting them as they crossed over,” he said.
The mainly Sunni Muslim area of north Lebanon, whose residents are largely sympathetic to the rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-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.
Sunni protesters in northern Lebanon took to the streets and set up roadblocks of burning tyres to express their solidarity with people in Wadi Khaled.
The Lebanese army meanwhile closed off unofficial border crossings in the north, citing the danger caused by the artillery fire.
The offensive in the Krak des Chevaliers area is one of two major operations by the Syrian army near the border with Lebanon aimed at severing rebel supply routes.
The army, backed by fighters from Lebanon's Hezbollah movement, is also fighting to seal the border in the Qalamoun region, where it seized the last major rebel bastion of Yabrud on Sunday.
The flare-up on Lebanon's northern border came hours after twin Syrian air raids hit the Arsal area, on the eastern border, without causing any casualties, a Lebanese security source said.
“Syrian helicopters carried out two strikes against the areas of Wadi Ajram and Khirbet Yunin, on the outskirts of Arsal, just after 9:00 pm (1900 GMT),” the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The area, which hosts tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, has been hit by repeated cross-border fire in recent months, some of it deadly.
In January, a rocket attack on Arsal by the army killed eight people, including five children.
Smuggling routes used by opposition forces to move fighters and weapons back and forth between Lebanon and Syria pass through the Arsal area.
Dominated by Damascus for 30 years until 2005, Lebanon is deeply divided over the conflict in neighbouring Syria.
Shiite Hezbollah and its allies back Assad, while the Sunni-led opposition supports the revolt.