BEIRUT: Islamist rebels in Syria seized an army checkpoint leading into the Christian town of Maalula on Wednesday, a rights watchdog said, as fighting rages on the ground.
"Jihadists from the Al-Nusra Front and Islamist rebels attacked a regime checkpoint on Wednesday morning at the entrance to Maalula, killing eight soldiers," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
The group, which relies on a community of activists, doctors and lawyers on the ground for its information, said the assault kicked off when a vehicle driven by a suicide bomber exploded in front of the checkpoint.
The rebels then fought against soldiers from the army, it added.
A video posted online by the rebels shows insurgents communicating on walkie-talkies as the cameraman says: "Allahu Akbar (God is the greatest), liberation of the Maalula checkpoint." The camera pans to bodies lying on the ground.
A resident of Maalula, a picturesque town 55 kilometres (34 miles) north of Damascus that sits nestled under a large cliff, told AFP the Al-Nusra Front jihadists had started firing on the town at 0300 GMT.
Speaking by phone from the Mar Takla monastery, the woman -- who refused to be identified -- said the rebels used shells and anti-aircraft machine guns, adding that some projectiles had hit the town centre.
"It's the first time that we've been attacked," she said.
Maalula is a symbol of the Christian presence in Syria, and many of its inhabitants speak Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ that only small, scattered communities around the world still use today.
It is full of troglodyte caves dating back to the first centuries of Christianity, and also houses the Mar Takla Greek Orthodox monastery.
More than 110,000 people have been killed since the conflict broke out in March 2011 with an uprising against the Assad regime, including over 40,100 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.