Battles rage in Syria Christian town: security source


DAMASCUS:  Syria’s army battled rebels for control of the ancient Christian  town of Maaloula near Damascus  on Saturday, a security official told  AFP, a week after opposition fighters took the area.

At the same time, rebel units were fighting jihadists in the east, near the  border with Iraq, as were Kurdish fighters in Hasakeh province in the northeast,  the Syria  Observatory  for Human Rights said.

“The army is continuing its mission in Maaloula. There are still some  terrorist pockets in the north of the town, in the Al-Safir hotel and its  surroundings, as well as in the hills surrounding the town,” the official from  the security services said on condition of anonymity.

President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has consistently labelled opponents as  “terrorists” since the outbreak of the revolt in March 2011 that has killed more  than 110,000 people.

“The army has made some progress,” the official added, saying the battle for  Maaloula has been hard because the army did not want to bomb the town.

The Britain-based Observatory  said the air force was  carrying out strikes to support the ground operation, with the security source  saying the town itself was not being targeted to protect its ancient churches  and other heritage sites.

Picturesque Maaloula is nestled under a large cliff, whose summit is  controlled by the rebels, making it difficult for the army to advance.

Last week, the Observatory and residents said rebel forces, including  jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda, had overrun the town.

Civilians started fleeing the town for Damascus and the neighbouring Sunni  village of Ain al-Tine, fearing an imminent  escalation.

On Tuesday, rebels announced they would withdraw from Maaloula, but that this  was “conditional” on pro-regime forces not taking their place.

The town, home to about 5,000 people, is strategically important for rebels,  who are trying to tighten their grip on Damascus and already have bases circling  the capital.

In other developments, the Observatory said regime air strikes elsewhere had  killed three women and a child near Damascus.

In Deir Ezzor province, near the Iraqi border, it said there was fighting  between rebels and units of the jihadist Islamic State  of Iraq  and the Levant  (ISIS) in Albu Kamal, with five people  killed.

And in Hasakeh province, in the northeast, Kurdish fighters clashed with  elements of ISIS and another jihadist group, the Al-Nusra Front.

In July, the Kurds drove the jihadists out of the area after fierce  fighting.