AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Syrian rebels led by al-Qaida-linked fighters
seized control of a predominantly Christian village northeast of
Damascus, sweeping into the mountainside sanctuary in heavy fighting
overnight and forcing hundreds of residents to flee, activists and
locals said Sunday.
The battle over Maaloula, an ancient village that is home to two of
the oldest surviving monasteries in Syria, has thrown a spotlight on the
deep-seated fears that many of Syria's religious minorities harbor
about the growing role of Islamic extremists on the rebel side in the
civil war against President Bashar Assad's regime.
The prominence of al-Qaida-linked fighters has factored into the
reluctance of Western powers to provide direct military support to the
rebels. It has also figured in the debate underway in the U.S. Congress
over whether to launch military strikes against Syria in retaliation for
an alleged chemical weapons attack last month.
After days of clashes in and around Maaloula, rebels captured the
village following fierce fighting late Saturday, according to the
Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group.
Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman said the assault was led by
Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida-affiliated group, as well as by the Qalamon
He said around 1,500 rebels were inside Maaloula, while the army had the village surrounded.
Syria's state news agency provided a dramatically different account
of the battle, saying the military reported "progress" in its offensive
"The army continued its military operation against terrorist elements
in Maaloula village and its vicinity, inflicting a heavy casualty in
the ranks of the terrorists, including their leaders," the news agency
State-run TV reported that all churches in Maaloula were now safe and the army was chasing gunmen in the western hills.
But residents of Maaloula reached by telephone described fierce
battles in the streets that forced them and other locals to flee as
opposition fighters flooded the village.
One resident said the rebels — many of them wearing beards and
shouting, "God is great!" — attacked Christian homes and churches
shortly after seizing the village.
"They shot and killed people. I heard gunshots and then I saw three
bodies lying in the middle of a street in the old quarters of the
village," the resident said by telephone. "So many people fled the
village for safety."
Now, he said, Maaloula "is a ghost town."
"Where is President Obama to see what befallen on us?" asked the man,
who fled the village on Sunday. He declined to give his name out of
fear for his safety.
Another resident who escaped earlier in the day said Assad's forces
were deployed on the outskirts of the village, while gunmen inside
refused to allow anybody in. He said that one of the churches, called
Demyanos, had been torched and that gunmen stormed into two other
churches and robbed them.
A third resident reached by phone said he saw militants forcing some Christian residents to convert to Islam.
"I saw the militants grabbing five villagers Wednesday and
threatening them: 'Either you convert to Islam or you will be
beheaded,'" he said.
The two other residents said they heard rumors about such conversions
but did not see them. The reports could not be independently verified.
All three residents spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of
Situated about 40 miles (60 kilometers) northeast of Damascus,
Maaloula had been firmly under the regime's grip despite sitting in the
middle of rebel-held territory east and north of the capital.
The village was a major tourist attraction before the civil war. Some
of its residents still speak a version of Aramaic, the language of
biblical times believed to have been used by Jesus.
The attack highlights 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
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
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