BEIRUT: Government troops battled Al Qaeda-linked rebels for a Christian village in western Syria for a second day yesterday.
Residents of Maaloula said the militants entered their ancient village on Wednesday night. Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights, said the fighters included members of the of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al Nusra group.
Despite a heavy army presence in the village, Abdul-Rahman said the rebels staged hit-and-run attacks there, at one point patrolling its streets on foot and in vehicles, and briefly surrounding a church and a mosque before leaving early yesterday.
The rebels launched the assault on Maaloula — which is on a Unesco list of tentative world heritage sites — on Wednesday after an Al Nusra fighter blew himself up at a regime checkpoint at the entrance to the mountain village. The village, about 60 kilometres northeast of Damascus, is home to 3,300 residents, some of whom still speak a version of Aramaic, the language believed to have been used by Jesus.
Clashes between President Bashar Al Assad’s troops and Nusra Front fighters persisted in the surrounding mountains, according to the Observatory, which collects information from a network of anti-regime activists in Syria’s civil war.
Speaking by phone from a convent in the village, a nun said that the rebels left a mountaintop hotel yesterday after capturing it a day earlier. The nun said the residents expect the Islamic militants to return to the Safir hotel and resume shelling of the community below.
“It’s their home now,” the nun said, speaking on condition of anonymity because she feared reprisals. She said about 100 people from the village took refuge in the convent. The 27 orphans who live there had been taken to nearby caves overnight “so they were not scared.”
Elsewhere yesterday, a car bomb exploded outside a research centre belonging to the Ministry of Industry in Soumariya, near Damascus, killing four people and wounding several others.
Three people were wounded when mortar shells hit two residential neighbourhoods of Damascus, the state news agency SANA reported.
In the northern province of Aleppo, a Syrian surgeon working for an international aid group was killed. Doctors Without Borders said the 28-year-old surgeon, Muhammad Abyad, died in an attack. Abyad, whose body was found Tuesday, had been working in an Aleppo hospital run by the group.
UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos met with Syrian government officials in the capital, lobbying for access to civilians trapped in areas where fighting has raged.
After meeting with the president of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, Amos said that she was “extremely concerned that the situation on the ground is becoming worse.”