World Bulletin/News Desk
In the past days, the town of Maaloula has already changed hands three times between President Bashar al-Assad's forces and rebel groups.
Combatants say the intensity of fighting over the town is due to its strategic location near the road leading from Damascus to the central city of Homs.
The fighting near Maaloula, in the Qalamoun mountains north of the capital, threatens ancient Christian sites nestled in the hillsides that were a site of pilgrimage for Christians and Muslims alike.
Retreating government forces continued to shell and clash with rebels on the outskirts of Maaloula, though violence inside the town abated on Monday morning.
According to a New York Times report, some of the rebels said in interviews that they meant Christians no harm. They filmed themselves talking politely with nuns, instructing fighters not to harm civilians or churches and touring a monastery that appeared mostly intact.
Reached by telephone on Monday night, Mother Pelagia Sayaf, who is in charge of Mar Taqla, a monastery in Maaloula that is among the country’s oldest, said that the 53 nuns and orphans staying there had not been harmed and that the principal damage was shattered windows. Another nun said some of the fighters were local men who promised to protect the monastery, according to the report.
Maaloula has several churches and important monasteries as well as the Greek Orthodox nunnery Mar Thecla, visited by many Christians and Muslims who are drawn by its reputation as a holy place where the sick would be miraculously healed.
A sizeable number of the inhabitants of Maaloula, as well as Sarkha and Jabaadeen, two nearby Sunni towns, still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ.
Abdelrahman said 18 rebel fighters were killed and over 100 injured during Saturday's fighting. He could not confirm the extent of casualties among government forces.
Restrictions by Syrian authorities on independent media make it difficult to verify these accounts.Last Mod: 11 Eylül 2013, 15:36