Islamist Nusra Front forces have re-captured Syria’s oldest Christian community from government troops in a night of fighting. The small village of Maaloula, once a peaceful spiritual place, became a battlefield on Wednesday.
The armed opposition groups captured the symbolically important village after forcing out Syrian national troops, who had previously pushed the insurgents to the mountainous outskirts of the village, reports AFP citing local sources.
In return Syrian national troops launched an attack to wrest back control of a historic Christian town north of Damascus late on Monday.
Members of the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front uploaded a video statement to YouTube on Sunday denying any intention to occupy Maaloula.
"Soon we will withdraw from this city not out of fear but to leave its homes to their owners. They were not our target. Our target was mainly military," said a man in the video, whose face cannot be seen because of a balaclava.
“It’s hard to believe that what used to be one of the most significant shrines of the Christian community all over the world is a battlefield now,” .said one resident of Maaloula.
“We’ve entered Maaloula village with the army, but just a few minutes later we were told to get back,” she says, as intensive shooting could be heard in the background.
The Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and its allies first attacked Maaloula, which is located just north of Damascus, on Wednesday. The village is considered a symbol of Christianity in Syria, with many inhabitants there speaking Aramaic, an ancient language spoken by Jesus Christ. There were reports of Islamist attacks on Christian churches after the initial advance.
Government forces managed to re-take the village on Friday. But the difficult mountainous landscape of the area negated the army’s weapons advantage, offering rebels plenty of vantage points and places to hide from airstrikes.
Maaloula, which has some 2,000 residents, is on a UNESCO list of proposed world heritage sites. Before this week it had been mostly untouched by the two-year-long Syrian conflict, which has left an estimated 100,000 people dead and forced more than two million to become refugees.