DAMASCUS/BEIRUT: Greek Orthodox Patriarch John Yazigi made a fervent plea Tuesday for Syrian rebels to release of a group of nuns and orphans they seized in the ancient town of Maaloula the day before.
“We appeal to the seed of conscience that God planted in all humans, including the kidnappers, to release our sisters safely,” he said in a statement.
“We call upon the international community and world governments to [help secure the] release of nuns of Mar Taqla convent and the orphans who are being held since yesterday.”
The Vatican’s ambassador to Syria said rebel fighters moved a dozen nuns and three female helpers to the nearby town of Yabroud, about 20 kilometers north, but it wasn’t clear if they had been kidnapped or evacuated for their safety.
Mario Zenari told The Daily Star that he had no specific details with regard to their location, but said the orphans had long been evacuated from Maaloula.
“It [Maaloula] is a ghost town,” Zenari said, referring to the flight of residents from Maaloula.
Zenari said the nuns were among the last residents left in Maaloula after most had fled south for relative safety in Damascus.
Other church officials have not mentioned the presence of orphans with the nuns.
Febronia Nabhan, Mother Superior at Seidnaya Convent, told the Associated Press that Pelagia Sayyaf, the Mother Superior of Mar Taqla, had telephoned her Monday night to report that the nuns were all “fine and safe.”
Sayyaf said, “she and the 11 other nuns, accompanied by three young maids, were comfortably installed in a house in Yabroud and no one was bothering them,” Nabhan said.
Louay Moqdad, a spokesman for the mainstream Free Syrian Army, denounced the behavior of some rebel groups in Maaloula but blamed the regime for placing tanks and other military hardware inside the village. Speaking to Al-Arabiya TV, he said rebels went into Maaloula not for sectarian reasons but because of its strategic location.
Maaloula was a major tourist attraction before the conflict began in March 2011. Some of its residents still speak a version of Aramaic, a biblical language spoken by Jesus.
In September, rebels seized parts of Maaloula but were driven out a few days later by government forces. Sayyaf and other convent members were trapped inside the building with dozens of orphans during the first round of fighting between regime forces and rebels in the town.
The fighting in the Qalamoun region of central Syria, pitting Al-Qaeda-linked fighters and several other rebel groups against Assad’s forces, is part of a wider struggle for control of the Damascus-Homs highway in central Syria.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said that fierce fighting raged in the nearby town of Nabk in the Qalamoun region, pitting mainstream rebels and jihadists from the Al-Qaeda affiliates the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Greater Syria against regime troops, National Defense paramilitaries and fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
It said at least one rebel fighter was killed in the clashes, as government troops shelled various parts of Nabk.
A pro-opposition group of media activists based in Qalamoun said 10 civilians were killed in the shelling and accused Hezbollah fighters of causing damage to both a church and a mosque during the violence.
Rebel fighters had managed to disable a regime tank on the highway, the group said.
A YouTube video posted Tuesday purports to show rebel fighters based in the town of Yabroud eavesdropping on Hezbollah members communicating with each other as they direct fire toward the mosque and a church in Nabk, claiming that rebels were holed up in the church.The rebels then break in on the conversation and a few minutes of lively and obscene insults are traded. The video could not be independently confirmed but rebels have posted a number of monitored communications of regime forces and their allies in recent months.
Similar bouts of shelling struck a number of nearby villages and towns in Qalamoun, the media activists said. They added that the humanitarian situation was deteriorating sharply, with the main Damascus- Homs highway blocked for two weeks.
In Damascus, a suicide bomber killed at least four people and wounded 17 in the central neighborhood of Jisr al-Abyad, Syrian state television reported.
The Observatory said the target of the attack appeared to be a government building. An AFP photographer at the scene said the bomber blew himself up at the entrance of an administrative building belonging to the army. The offices are responsible for facilitating aid to families of soldiers killed in combat.
State television network Al-Ikhbariya showed pictures of the scene, the ground littered with rubble and broken glass. At least one body was visible at the front of the building.