BEIRUT/DAMASCUS: A group of Orthodox nuns seized by Syrian rebels in the town of Maaloula appeared in a video broadcast Friday and said fierce shelling and bombardment had forced them to depart their convent.
In the brief footage aired by Al-Jazeera television, several of the nuns denied that they were being held hostage. Syrian rebels are believed to have taken the women to the nearby town of Yabroud, where they are reportedly staying in the home of a Christian family.
One of the nuns tells an unseen interlocutor that they are receiving “good treatment” during their ordeal. Another requests an immediate end to the targeting of holy places.
“A group brought us here and protected us, and we’re very, very happy with them,” one of the nuns says.
Anti-government activists from the Syrian General Revolution Commission denied reports that a rebel group had demanded that the regime release hundreds of female detainees in exchange for the release of the women. The nuns were taken from Maaloula’s Mar Taqla convent Monday.
Maaloula, Yabroud and other villages and towns in the Qalamoun region north of Damascus have been subject to a fierce regime offensive for over two weeks. Anti-government activists Thursday accused the regime forces of using chemical gas in a bombardment of the Qalamoun town of Nabk, where at least seven people were killed, reportedly exhibiting symptoms of poisoning.
Activists said they were in the process of collecting samples from the victims and the location of the strike.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, citing activists, said 17 bodies had been discovered in a bomb shelter in the government-controlled part of Nabk. The Observatory urged the Red Cross to be allowed access, to investigate accusations that regime troops were responsible for the massacre. Other activist reports cited significantly higher figures of victims.
In the Aleppo village of Bazaa, the Observatory said, a regime airstrike also killed 16 people, while in the northeastern, Kurdish-majority town of Qamishli, a suicide car bomber detonated his explosives near a building manned by paramilitary forces, killing at least five people, according to the state news agency and activists.
Syria’s state news agency SANA said the bombing occurred on a crowded street, killing six people and wounding 30. The Observatory said the blast targeted the National Defense Forces and killed at least five people and wounded 10.
The Observatory said it wasn’t clear whether the dead were National Defense paramilitaries.
Syrian state television, meanwhile, said at least three people had been killed and 15 wounded by rebel rocket fire on regime-held districts of Aleppo.
Weekly, nationwide demonstrations were mobilized under the slogan of “break the siege” of besieged areas around the country.
In the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp south of Damascus, one man was killed and six others wounded when fighters from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command fired at demonstrators, the Observatory said, citing activists.
In Kuwait, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Syrian President Bashar Assad must stand down to allow for a peaceful settlement to the conflict.
“We have always been very clear that a peaceful solution in Syria must require the departure of President Assad,” Hague told a news conference after talks with his Kuwaiti counterpart Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Sabah.
“It is impossible to imagine after so many deaths, so much destruction, a regime oppressing and murdering its own people on this scale” should remain in power, Britain’s chief diplomat said.
The reiteration of Britain’s call for Assad’s ouster comes ahead of the proposed Geneva II peace talks, slated for Jan. 22.