DAMASCUS: Syrian rebels want to use nuns "kidnapped" from their Maalula convent north of Damascus as "human shields," pro-regime daily Al-Watan said Wednesday.
Rebels took a dozen Syrian and Lebanese nuns from Maalula to a nearby area under rebel control after capturing the historic Christian town late Monday, but it was not immediately clear whether the nuns had been kidnapped or moved for their own safety.
"Syrian army forces have started arriving in the Maalula area to restore security, after hundreds of rebels sowed chaos in the city, which they entered through the mountains, and kidnapped 12 Syrian and Lebanese nuns to take them to Yabrud," a rebel town northeast of Maalula, said Al-Watan.
"The terrorists want to use them as human shields," it added.
Yabrud is the loyalist army's next target in Qalamoun, a mountainous region north of Damascus that is strategic because of its proximity to smuggling routes across the Lebanese border and a key road linking the capital to central Homs province.
Al-Watan's report comes a day after the mother superior of Saydnaya convent in Damascus province, Fibronia Nabhan, said she had spoken with her Maalula counterpart, who confirmed the nuns were in Yabrud.
Maalula mother superior Pelagia Sayyaf said "she and the 11 other nuns, accompanied by three young maids, were comfortably installed in a house in Yabrud and no one was bothering them," Nabhan said.
On Wednesday Pope Francis called for prayers for the nuns.
"I invite you all to pray for the nuns of the Greek Orthodox convent of St Takla of Maalula in Syria who were forcibly taken away by armed men two days ago," Francis said at a general audience in St Peter's Square.
"We pray for these nuns and for all kidnap victims in the conflict," he said.
Rebels, including jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda, took control of Maalula on Monday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Maalula has long been a symbol of the long Christian presence in Syria. Its residents are some of the few left in the world who speak Aramaic, the language that Jesus Christ is believed to have spoken.