BEIRUT: Syrian troops launched an offensive Monday against rebel-held positions on hills overlooking a mainly Christian village as they moved to regain control of the ancient community near the capital, Damascus, activists said.
The battle for Maaloula has stoked fears among Syrian Christians that the alternative to Assad’s regime – which is made up mostly of Alawites, followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam – would not tolerate minority religions. Such concerns have helped Assad retain the support of large chunks of Syria’s minority communities, including Christians, Alawites, Druze and ethnic Kurds. Most of the rebels and their supporters are Sunni Muslims.
Maaloula, about 60 kilometers northeast of Damascus, had until recently been firmly under the regime’s grip despite sitting in the middle of rebel-held territory. The village was a major tourist attraction before the civil war. Some of its residents still speak a version of Aramaic, a biblical language believed to have been used by Jesus.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighters from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and the Qalamon Liberation Front still control Maaloula, but troops shelled suspected rebel positions on the hills surrounding the area in an apparent bid to isolate the opposition forces in the village.
Rebels, who seized control of the village Saturday, have said in a video that they will pull out after having achieved their objective of blowing an army post there “that was used to harm Muslims.”
In the video, which appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting, a masked commander surrounded by eight masked gunmen said “we will soon withdraw from this city not out of fear but to leave the homes to their owners.”
The commander said that explosions and shooting heard in the background were from regime forces shelling the village.
Two nuns also appeared in the video, saying they were well-treated by the rebels. “They behaved well with us and they did not harm us,” one said at the rebels’ prompting.
All but some 50 of the 3,300 villagers have fled, a resident who left the area in the past days said.
The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from rebels, said a truce Monday morning allowed paramedics to evacuate 10 wounded Christian residents. He added that one church on the western side of the village was burnt.
A nun in the village told the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV that Nusra Front members entered her convent early Monday and took pictures and videos of the site.
“The Syrian army is on the outskirts,” said Pelagia Sayaf, who heads the Mar Takla convent. “There are sporadic clashes and I can hear the sound of warplanes.”
In other violence, the Observatory said three rockets hit a traffic police station in the central city of Homs, killing 11 policemen and wounding more than 10, after midnight Monday. More than 100,000 people have been killed in the war, which began as an uprising against Assad’s regime in March 2011.