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7 Sep, 2013 14:57

Syrian Christian village in crossfire as govt forces try to squeeze out Al Nusra rebels

Heavy fighting between rebels and regime forces continues in Syria’s predominately Christian village of Maaloula, which was earlier partially destroyed by Al-Qaeda affiliated rebels.

"There are clashes just inside the town in the western district between Popular Committees (militia) and rebel forces," director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdul Rahman, told AFP.

"There are also clashes between soldiers backed by militias and rebel fighters around the area of one of the entrances to Maaloula," he said.

State television citing a military source reports several rebels have been killed and their weapons destroyed as the army targeted a hotel and surrounding positions on the outskirts of Maaloula, north of Damascus, where a group of rebels were stationed.

Maaloula – a mountain village of 2,000 residents, 60km northeast of Damascus - is home to some of the most ancient Orthodox Christian relics and is a major pilgrimage destination. It’s also one of the very few places in the world where people still speak Aramaic, a biblical-era language that Jesus is believed to have spoken.

An RT news crew traveled to the site, but was not allowed to enter the city for safety reasons. 

“The militants, around 300 people, hide [sic] in Safir hotel, there are ancient caves there under the village – they use them as well. They watch us – and we watch them, but if we start moving – they'll attack us. But unlikely before the sunset,” a Syrian army soldier told RT’s Maria Finoshina.

However, the opposition Syrian National Coalition said members of the Free Syrian Army had withdrawn from Maaloula earlier this week, after destroying army posts at Maaloula.

Earlier this week, reports indicated that militants had broken into the village and shelled Christian churches with mortars, the Surya al-Ain website reported. A fire broke out in the temple of the Holy Prophet Elijah, and the building suffered damage.

The National Coalition said they were in the area for several hours, "but did not attack any church or convent".
Meanwhile, the Syrian government sent reinforcements, including tanks and armored personnel carriers.

"Reinforcement" is 5 or 6 packed buses.Army officers say up to 300 rebels in #Maaloula Safir hotel + hundreds nearby pic.twitter.com/QBOYNuq4pK

— Maria Finoshina (@MFinoshina_RT) September 7, 2013

Government forces have taken up positions outside the village, Rami Abdul-Rahman said, adding that were clashes on Friday around the village, which is on a UNESCO list of proposed world heritage sites.

“The Syrian army plans an operation to clear Maaloula from Jabhat al Nusra rebels. There have been rumors that the rebels have left the village, but the army says they’re still there. Even if they leave Maaloula, they can hide nearby and return,” RT’s correspondent reports.

Earlier on Thursday, government war planes launched three air strikes on the checkpoint held by the rebels.

Until Wednesday, this mountain village of 2,000 residents near Damascus, had managed to remain mostly unaffected by the civil war that, according to UN estimates, has already claimed more than 100,000 lives.