Syrian government troops battled al-Qaida-linked rebels over a regime-held Christian village in western Syria for the second day Thursday, as world leaders gathered in Russia for an economic summit expected to be overshadowed by the prospect of U.S.-led strikes against the Damascus regime.
Residents of Maaloula said the militants entered the village late Wednesday. Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights, said the fighters included members of the of al-Qaida affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra group.
Despite heavy army presence in the village, Abdul-Rahman said the rebels patrolled its streets on foot and in vehicles, briefly surrounding a church and a mosque before leaving early Thursday.
The rebels launched the assault on the ancient Christian village of 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 40 miles (60 kilometers) northeast of Damascus, is home to 3,300 residents, some of whom still speak a version of Aramaic, the ancient language of biblical times believed to have been spoken by Jesus.
Heavy clashes between President Bashar Assad’s troops and Nusra Front fighters persisted in surrounding mountains Thursday, according to the Observatory, which collects information from a network of anti-regime activists.
Speaking by phone from a convent in the village, a nun told The Associated Press that the rebels left a mountaintop hotel Thursday after capturing it a day earlier. The nun said the frightened 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. She said some 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.”
The nun spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The link below leads to the more biased AP version of the story.