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14 Sep, 2013 20:05

‘Invisible, invincible in caves’: Syrian army battles rebels in ancient Christian town

‘Invisible, invincible in caves’: Syrian army battles rebels in ancient Christian town

The Syrian army is battling rebel fighters to regain control of Maaloula near Damascus, a week after opposition soldiers took the town. The rebels found shelter in numerous caves, which makes them virtually ‘invincible,’ RT’s crew reports from the scene.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports the Syrian air force has been bombing Maaloula to support ground troops. But a security source told AFP that they were not bombing the town itself to protect its ancient churches and other sites of important historical value.

RT’s correspondent in Maaloula, Maria Finoshina, tweets that the town is impassable because of snipers and those rebels holed up in the caves in the cliffs behind the town present the biggest problem for the army.

#Maaloula remains very complicated. Snipers everywhere while no one know exactly where. Impossible to get to the monasteries. Roads targeted

— Maria Finoshina (@MFinoshina_RT) September 14, 2013

Last week, rebel forces as well as jihadists linked to al-Qaeda took over the town. On Tuesday the rebels said they would give it up but only on the condition that Assad’s forces didn’t take their place.

Finoshina arrived in the battle scarred village on Wednesday and found that there was little sympathy among the few resident who were left for the rebels.

This Soinoza admirer fighting against militants in #Maaloula: "God forgot #Syria. I'm angry&no longer believes", altho from religious family

— Maria Finoshina (@MFinoshina_RT) September 14, 2013

They said the Christian village famous for its beautiful churches and monasteries was looted and the jihadist rebels forced inhabitants to convert to Islam or threatened them with execution. Many decided to join the Syrian army to defend their homes.

“They sent terrorists here from all corners of the world to kill Syrian people and each other. Why? I ask the world, why?” Saba Ubeid told Finoshina.

The rebels are now holed up in the surrounding hills, which are littered with caves and hold the high ground above the town, making it difficult for the Syrian army to advance.

Thousands of caves - #Maaloula 's main attraction be4, now its Achilles heel. Militants invisible there & invincible pic.twitter.com/sVBzZXPGU0

— Maria Finoshina (@MFinoshina_RT) September 14, 2013

“The army is continuing its mission in Maaloula. There are still some terrorist pockets in the north of the town, in the Al-Safir hotel and its surroundings, as well as in the hills surrounding the town,” an official from the security services told AFP.

Maaloula has a population of about 5,000 and is strategically important to both sides because of its proximity to Damascus.

Meanwhile elsewhere in Syria, rebel units were battling jihadists in the Deir Province in the east of the country. Five people have been killed in fighting between the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) in Albu Kamal.

While in the Hasakeh province in the northeast Kurdish fighters fought the AL-Nursa front, another Jihadist group operating in Syria, and parts of the ISIS.

A Syrian soldier takes aim at rebel fighters positioned in the mountains of the Christian town of Maalula on September 13, 2013 (AFP Photo / STR)