DAMASCUS/BEIRUT: Syrian government forces retook a Christian town north of Damascus Monday, expelling Al-Qaeda-linked rebels after a week of heavy fighting, state media and opposition activists said.
“Our valiant forces have re-established security and stability in Sadad,” government news agency SANA said.
It said “a large number of terrorists” were killed and their weapons seized, adding that the army dismantled scores of roadside bombs planted by gunmen around the Christian town.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the report, adding that anti-government forces had withdrawn to Mahin, the scene of fierce fighting for the past week for control of a large, highly strategic arsenal.
The Observatory had at the weekend reported “at least 100 killed from among the ranks of the army and dozens more among the rebels and jihadists” in the fighting.
The rebels appear to have targeted Sadad because of its strategic location near the main highway north of Damascus, rather than because it is Christian. But hard-liners among the rebels are hostile to Syria’s Christian minority, which fears the radicals and tends to favor Assad. Other Al-Qaeda-linked fighters have damaged and desecrated churches in areas they have seized.
SANA said the army was still pursuing opposition fighters who fled Sadad for surrounding farms. It also reported that the rebels had vandalized the town’s St. Theodore Church and much of Sadad’s infrastructure.
Meanwhile, rebels active in the Homs governorate posted a video to YouTube, in which they sought to reassure Christian communities.
Flanked by several dozen armed men in an open area, a rebel commander addresses fighters active in the central part of Syria. He issues a set of strict instructions to rebel fighters, telling them that Christians who are not fighting alongside the regime should be safe from violence, along with their property and places of worship.
The rebels appear to be mainstream Free Syrian Army fighters and not affiliated with Al-Qaeda-inspired groups.
Jihadists also torched an Armenian church in the northern town of Tal Abyad Sunday, and “forcibly took down the cross from the church building,” according to the Observatory.
The Observatory recalled earlier such acts by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in the city of Raqqa, and noted that the jihadist group has also “detonated and exploded the graves and holy sites” of both Sufi sheikhs and Shiites in the provinces of Raqqa, Hassakeh, Deir al-Zor, Aleppo and Idlib.
In the Greater Damascus area, rebels released a video in which they claimed responsibility for a huge bomb attack on a stronghold of pro-regime paramilitaries in Sayyida Zeinab, south of the capital, over the weekend.
The cyber warfare aspect of the Syrian crisis also heated up Monday, when hackers from the Syrian Electronic Army claimed they had taken control of U.S. President Barack Obama’s Twitter and Facebook accounts.
The group, which backs Syria’s government and has previously hacked accounts of The New York Times, Agence France Presse and other media organizations, published screen shots that it said backed its claims.
But both accounts appeared to be functioning normally some time after the claim. The White House did not immediately respond to an AFP query on the claim.
A Twitter spokesman said in a tweet that “The @BarackObama Twitter account was not compromised; their link shortener was.”
The Syrian group also claimed it took over a Gmail account from Obama’s campaign and a page from that website.
“We accessed many Obama campaign emails accounts to assess his terrorism capabilities. They are quite high,” the group tweeted.
An official at the political offshoot of the Obama campaign called “Organizing For Action” acknowledged that the link shortener was hacked but that the Twitter handle itself was not compromised.