BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops launched an attack Monday on hills overlooking a Christian-majority village near the capital Damascus, two days after rebel forces captured the ancient community, an activist group said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighters from the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front and the Qalamon Liberation Front still control Maaloula, an ancient village that is home to two of the oldest surviving monasteries in Syria. Rebels captured the village on Saturday.
The battle has thrown a spotlight on the deep-seated fears that many of Syria's religious minorities harbor about the growing role of Islamic extremists on the rebel side in Syria's civil war.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, said troops attacked the hills around Maaloula early Monday under the cover of heavy shelling. He said the aim of the troops appears to "to isolate the rebels in the village."
The village, famous for being home to two of the oldest surviving monasteries in Syria, is nearly empty of its inhabitants. Only around 50 people remain there, according to a resident who left the area in the past days.
The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from rebels, said there was a truce Monday morning in order for paramedics to evacuate 10 wounded Christian residents.
He added that one church on the western side of the village was burnt.
A nun in the village told the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV that Nusra Front members are still in control of the village, adding that they entered her convent early Monday and took pictures and videos of the site.
"The Syrian army is on the outskirts," said Pelagia Sayaf, who heads the Mar Takla convent. "We only know about what is happening in the convent. We know nothing about outside and whether anyone was killed or kidnapped ... There are sporadic clashes and I can hear the sound of warplanes."
Situated about 40 miles (60 kilometers) northeast of Damascus, Maaloula had until recently been firmly under the regime's grip despite sitting in the middle of rebel-held territory east and north of the capital.
The village was a major tourist attraction before the civil war. Some of its residents still speak a version of Aramaic, a Biblical language believed to have been used by Jesus.
The attack highlights fears among Syrian Christians that the alternative to Assad's regime — which is made up mostly of Alawites, followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam — would not tolerate minority religions.
Such concerns have helped Assad retain the support of large chunks of Syria's minority communities, including Christians, Alawites, Druze and ethnic Kurds. Most of the rebels and their supporters are Sunni Muslims.
Syria's crisis, which began in March 2011, has killed more than 100,000 people according to the U.N.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed to this report from Beirut.