BEIRUT/GENEVA: Syria rebels moved into the center of the historic Christian town of Maaloula Monday and forcibly evacuated a dozen Syrian and Lebanese Orthodox nuns, according to a Vatican spokesperson.
Vatican Radio, citing the Holy See’s ambassador to Syria, Mario Zenari, said the 12 were apparently taken north in the direction of the town of Yabroud.
“We don’t know the reasons behind this act by the armed opposition. It is a kidnapping, or an act of control over the monastery in order to free their hand in Maaloula,” he said, hinting that he hesitated to label the nuns hostages.
However, pro-opposition sources denied that the nuns had been taken hostage, claiming that rebels from the mainstream Free Syrian Army were trying to protect the women amid intensive shelling by government troops located near the town.
The sources said the rebels were still in the convent with the nuns and that the shelling and sniping by government troops had prevented their attempts to evacuate them.
The rebels advanced on Maaloula after sending explosive-filled tires hurtling down on security forces there, a security source told AFP. The picturesque town is considered a symbol of the ancient Christian presence in Syria, and its 5,000 residents are among the few in the world who speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ.
Nusra was joined by four other, smaller rebel groups in the campaign, according to opposition sources and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Syrian state news agency SANA said the rebels had entered the Orthodox Mar Taqla convent, in the middle of the city, which had previously been controlled by the army.
“Local sources said terrorists broke into the convent, taking Mother Superior Pelagia Sayyaf and other nuns hostage,” SANA reported.
The convent is home to some 40 nuns and orphans, some of the few residents of the town who remained after rebels first entered in September, prompting fierce fighting with the army.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry sent letters to U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council charging that the rebels were ransacking churches in the town, and called on the international community to intervene.
The Observatory confirmed that rebels had taken the entire town after five days of fighting.
The renewed clashes in the town come as the regime battles to gain control of a string of nearby strategic towns and villages along the Damascus-Homs highway, north of the capital.
Government forces have recaptured the town of Qara and Deir Atiya, and government troops are now battling rebels for control of Nabk. The regime is seeking to encircle the rebels in the Qalamoun region, north of Damascus, and sever opposition supply lines across the nearby border with Lebanon.
Opposition sources said the main Homs-Damascus highway remained cut for the 13th straight day, and that the rebels had destroyed several regime vehicles during the fierce fighting, which saw government troops shell a number of towns in the Qalamoun region.
In Geneva, U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said evidence has been uncovered in Syria that implicates President Bashar Assad and members of his entourage in war crimes and crimes against humanity.
A U.N. commission of inquiry into human rights violations in Syria “has produced massive evidence ... [of] very serious crimes, war crimes, crimes against humanity,” she said, adding that “the evidence indicates responsibility at the highest level of government, including the head of state.”
The commission, tasked with probing rights violations since shortly after the conflict erupted in March 2011, has repeatedly accused the Syrian regime of crimes against humanity and war crimes.
It has said the rebels fighting Assad’s regime are also guilty of war crimes.
But the four-member team, headed by Brazilian Paulo Sergio Pinheiro and including former war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte, has never named names nor pointed directly at Assad.
The investigators, who without access to Syria have relied on more than 2,000 interviews in the surrounding region or by phone or Skype for their reports, have put together a long list of suspected perpetrators.
The names “remain sealed until I am requested to furnish them to credible investigation,” Pillay told reporters in Geneva, adding that “it could be a national investigation or international investigation.”
She meanwhile reiterated her call for the case to be handed over to the International Criminal Court in the Hague to ensure accountability.
“The scale of viciousness of the abuses being perpetrated by elements on both sides almost defies belief,” she said.
The Observatory said that at least 32 civilians and 24 rebel fighters were killed Monday around the country, while giving a preliminary figure of 88 dead in the ranks of regime troops.
The fiercest clashes were in the province of Rural Damascus, where Qalamoun is located. The Observatory said six civilians and 17 rebel fighters were killed there.
In Damascus, a state terror court executed 12 civilians, it added.
Elsewhere in the country, rebel fighters took a weapons depot in the southern province of Deraa after several days of fighting, the Observatory said.
Observers and pro-opposition social media networks have hailed the uptick in rebel activity in Deraa as well as in the province of Quneitra, on the border with Israel. A coalition of rebel groups in Quneitra have claimed a series of victories in recent days, taking small army posts in villages in the province.
In Syria’s other southern province, Swaida, the Observatory said that the Nusra Front was responsible for killing at least one officer, a lieutenant, and possibly a general in an attack, but did not provide details about the incident.
Swaida has seen a very small number of rebel actions during the course of the war.