Activists and residents say Syrian rebels have taken control of parts of an ancient Christian town in the rugged Qalamoun region near Damascus.
Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a resident said Monday that rebels were steadily seizing swathes of Maaloula.
The resident said hardline Islamic brigades first began attacking Syrian forces in the town three days ago. He said Maaloula residents fled to Damascus, fearing rebels would punish them for supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad and because they are Christians. The resident requested anonymity, fearing for his safety.
Fighting for the town, about five km (three miles) from the main road linking Damascus to Homs, is part of a wider struggle between rebel fighters and President Bashar al-Assad’s forces for control of the strategic central Syrian highway.
The town was the scene of heavy fighting in September, when it changed hands four times in a series of attacks and counter-assaults by rebels and government forces. At the time, the Mother Superior at Mar Thecla denied reports circulated by pro-government groups that rebels had pillaged Christian sites.
In previous battles, hardline rebels have desecrated churches but largely left Christians alone.
The latest fighting coincides with a government offensive to secure other towns on the road from Damascus to the city of Homs and Assad’s Alawite heartland overlooking the Mediterranean.
Rebels and Assad-loyal forces are clashing in the Qalamoun area over a strategic highway and smuggling routes from neighboring Lebanon.
Syria’s Christian community, about 10 percent of the population, is wary of the rising power of Islamist groups within the rebel movement. A small percentage of Christians so far have taken up arms in the civil war that broadly pits minorities, in particular Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, against the Sunni Muslim majority.
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