Syria rebels moved into the center of the historic Christian town of Maaloula on Monday after sending explosive-filled tires hurtling down on security forces deployed there, a security source said.
The rebels, including jihadis from the Al-Nusra Front, sent tires packed with explosives rolling down from positions in the cliffs above the town, the source said.
Syrian state news agency SANA said the rebels had entered the Orthodox Mar Takla convent, in the middle of the city, which had previously been controlled by the army.
The convent is home to some 40 nuns and orphans, some of the few residents of the town who remained after rebels first entered in September, prompting fierce fighting with the army.
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The picturesque town is considered a symbol of the ancient Christian presence in Syria, and its 5,000 residents are among the few in the world who speak Aramaic.
The renewed clashes in the town come as government forces battle to gain control of a string of nearby strategic towns and villages along the Damascus-Homs highway, north of the capital.
It has recaptured the town of Qara and Deir Attiyeh, and government troops are now battling rebels for control of Nabak.
The army is seeking to encircle the rebels in the Qalamoun region north of Damascus and sever opposition supply lines across the nearby border with Lebanon.
The clashes came as witnesses said a mortar fired from Syrian side of the ceasefire line with Israel had landed outside the town of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-occupied part of the Golan Heights.
An Israeli army spokeswoman said there had also been small arms fire in the central Golan towards the occupation forces during the morning.
“Troops returned fire and confirmed a hit,” she said, without giving further details.
Reported By Alakhbar
Maaloula: Islamist rebels abduct 12 nuns from the St Thecla Orthodox monastery
The sisters were abducted this afternoon when a group of armed men stormed the monastery. For Vatican nuncio Mgr Mario Zenari and the Greek Orthodox Church, the rebels have taken the nuns to Yabrud, a city 80 km from Damascus.
Damascus (AsiaNews) – Islamist rebels have kidnapped a group of nuns from the Greek Orthodox monastery of St Thecla (Mar Taqla) in Maaloula (north of Damascus). Mgr Mario Zenari, the Vatican nuncio in Damascus, confirmed the information after speaking with the Greek-Orthodox Patriarchate. Through the Vatican diplomat, the latter “calls on all Catholics to pray for the women religious.”
“Armed men burst in the monastery of St Thecla in Maaloula this afternoon. From there, they forcibly took 12 women religious,” Mgr Zenari said, citing a statement from Patriarchate. The group of Islamist rebels has apparently taken them to Yabrud, some 80 km north of the capital. Neither the nuncio nor the church Greek Orthodox Church know reason behind the kidnapping.
Islamist Rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had invaded the small town on 5 September after driving out regime troops with the support of al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Brigades. After taking control of the city, they went on a rampage against Christian buildings, killing three young Catholic men.
More than 3,000 people, the town’s entire Christian population, fled their homes seeking refuge in Bab Touma, the Christian quarter of Damascus. Some found shelter with relatives in Lebanon or in local Greek-Catholic convents.
Only Muslims were left in town, plus 40 nuns at the St Thecla Monastery who stayed to help care for dozens of orphaned children.
As of yesterday, Maaloula became again the scene of heavy fighting between the army and Syrian rebels, including many members of the extremist Jabat-al-Nusra militia.
Clashes are concentrated mostly in the upper, oldest part of the town, where the St Thecla Greek-Orthodox and the Sts Sergius and Bacchus Greek-Catholic monasteries are located.
From there, the rebels have launched repeated attacks against army positions in the lower part of town.
Fighting is intensifying, sources told AsiaNews. “The army is trying to regain control over the villages north of Damascus. For this purpose, it has launched a major offensive against the rebels, who are trying to hold government forces back through a scorched earth policy in the areas under their control.”
Reported By AsiaNews.it