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Syrian rebels capture town of Maaloula

Rebel brigades are pushing to take control of the strategic Qalamoun mountains near Damsacus.

A group of rebels on a tank in Darkoush, Syria. Picture: Rahima Essop/EWN.

AMMAN - Syrian rebel fighters withdrew on Thursday after briefly capturing a historic Christian town in the centre of the country as part of a campaign to take control of strategic mountains near Damascus, opposition sources said.

Several rebel brigades, including a contingent of the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, swept into the town of Maaloula in the Qalamoun mountains on Wednesday after overrunning a roadblock manned by troops and militia loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the sources said.

The attack highlighted the delicate position of the Christian minority in Syria, where members of the clerical hierarchy have expressed public support for Assad.

The Christian community, while fearing an Islamist takeover, has remained largely in the sidelines since 2001, when it staged peaceful protests against four decades of rule by the Assad family.

Few Christians have taken up arms in the civil war that has torn Syria over the past two and a half years, which broadly pits Assad's Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, against the Sunni majority.

Most people in Maaloula fled when the fighting erupted around the roadblock and Syrian fighters bombarded the area on Wednesday. Ten Assad loyalists were killed, but no death toll was immediately available for the rebel side, activists said.

Maaloula has several churches and important monasteries as well as the Greek Orthodox nunnery Mar Thecla, visited by many Christians and Muslims, drawn by its reputation as a holy place where the sick would be miraculously healed.

"An army unit eliminated members of a terrorist group belonging to the al-Nusra Front northeast of Maaloula and destroyed the tools they use in their crimes," said Syria's official state news agency.

Restrictions by Syrian authorities on independent media make verifying these accounts difficult.

REBELS BOLSTERED

The rebels have been emboldened by Assad's forces retrenching in response to the threat of US military action in the wake of the nerve gas attack on Damascus districts that killed hundreds of

Video footage showed a rebel fighter firing a machine gun from the centre of Maaloula into a cliff, and a group of rebels carrying rocket propelled grenades and flashing victory signs in the centre of the town.

"Maaloula has been totally cleansed from the dogs of Bashar," a rebel says in one of the videos.

Other footage showed a rebel commander instructing a group of fighters not to target civilians or the Christian symbols in the town.

"The rebels have achieved their mission of removing the roadblocks surrounding Maaloula," said Faek al-Mir, a Syrian opposition campaigner. "We ask all the residents who have left the town to go back. Their passage back is safe."

The Alawite minority's grip on power was cemented in the 1960s by the elder Assad, who forged complex alliances with the Christian ecclesiastical establishment, Sunni clerics and members of the Sunni merchant class in Damascus and Aleppo.

Syria has about 850,000 Christians, about 4.5 percent of the population. Of those, about 400,000 are Catholics of the Syrian, Greek Melkite, Maronite, and Chaldean and Armenian churches.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry's public assertions that moderate Syrian opposition groups are growing in influence appeared to be at odds with estimates by US, European intelligence sources, and nongovernmental experts, who say Islamic extremists remain by far the fiercest and best-organized rebel elements.

At congressional hearings this week, while making the case for President Barack Obama's plan for limited military action in Syria, Kerry asserted that the armed opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad "has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership, and more defined by its adherence to some, democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution.

Kerry's remarks represented a change in tone by the Obama administration, which for more than two years has been wary of sending US arms to the rebels, citing fears they could fall into radical Islamists' hands.

Several leading lawmakers, including Senator John McCain, Arizona Republican, also have said there is a viable moderate opposition in Syria that Washington should support.

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