September 5, 2013
(AP) Rebels fight Syrian army in Christian village
By BARBARA SURK
Government troops battled al-Qaida-linked rebels for a Christian village in western Syria for a second day Thursday, while world leaders gathered in Russia for an economic summit expected to be overshadowed by the prospect of U.S.-led military strikes against the Damascus regime.
Residents of Maaloula said the militants entered their ancient village Wednesday night. Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights, said the fighters included members of the of the al-Qaida-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 Thursday.
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 40 miles (60 kilometers) northeast of Damascus, is home to 3,300 residents, some of whom still speak a version of Aramaic, the language of biblical times believed to have been used by Jesus.
Heavy clashes between President Bashar 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 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, 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 Thursday, a car bomb exploded outside a research center belonging to the Ministry of Industry in area of Soumariya near Damascus, killing four people and wounding several others, a government official said. The official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.
Three people were wounded when mortar shells hit two residential neighborhoods of Damascus, the state news agency SANA reported. Rebels fighting to topple Assad have frequently fired mortars in the capital, seeking to thwart attempts by the regime to portray life there as normal despite the civil war that rages across Syria.
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