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September 24, 2017

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Syria troops retake ancient Christian town

BEIRUT--Syrian regime troops retook the ancient Christian town of Maalula on Monday, a day after President Bashar al-Assad said the conflict was turning in his government's favor.

"The army has taken full control of Maalula and restored security and stability. Terrorism has been defeated in Qalamun," a security official told AFP, referring to the region in which Maalula is located.

"This operation comes in the context of the capture of Qalamun. A large number of terrorists were killed and others who fled are being pursued," added the official, who asked not to be named.

Syria's regime uses the term "terrorists" to refer to all those who seek Assad's overthrow.

Maalula's capture "reinforces control of the crossing points on the border" with Lebanon, the official added.

It comes after a string of regime successes in the strategic Qalamun region, including the seizure of the former rebel bastion of Yabrud last month.

The Syrian regime has made securing Qalamun a key priority in order 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.

Maalula fell to rebel forces last December, as the regime focused its attention on capturing towns along the Damascus-Homs highway.

The picturesque town is considered a symbol of the ancient Christian presence in Syria, and its 5,000 pre-war residents are among the few in the world who still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ.

When the town was seized by rebels, 13 nuns were seized from its convent and held by Al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters until a prisoner swap with the regime in March.

Assad Hails 'turning point'

Maalula's fall comes a day after Assad said his government was gaining the upper hand in the conflict that began in March 2011 and has left

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