Battle for Syria Christian town of Maaloula continues

The BBC's Jeremy Bowen reports from the town of Maaloula

A BBC correspondent in Syria has said the battle for an ancient Christian town is continuing, despite reports that government forces had retaken it.

Jeremy Bowen said that a heavy gunfight with rebels was continuing in Maaloula, with smoke rising into the sky.

He added that he had not seen evidence confirming religious sites had been damaged by al-Qaeda-linked jihadists.

Fighting over the town, 55km (34 miles) north of Damascus, began last week after rebels attacked a checkpoint.

At the scene

Government forces are in Maaloula, but there is still fighting going on. I've heard a lot of heavy fire and one or two large explosions as well. Their opponents from the al-Nusra Front - the armed rebel group that is allied with al-Qaeda - appear to still be in the town. I've seen about half a dozen wounded government soldiers driven back at speed towards their rear echelon.

I've spoken to some local members of the National Defence Forces, a pro-government militia. They say they are fighting for their town and the fact it was a place where Christians and Muslims once lived side by side. They say they are fighting against the people they regard as terrorists.

The town's residents fled in a hurry to Damascus when the rebels first moved in. They are very upset and angry about what happened. Some told me that when they left, the al-Nusra Front desecrated some of their churches. There is quite a bit of damage to the town, but I can't see considerable damage to the holy places. In fact, I can see a big statue of the Virgin Mary that is very much intact.

Free Syrian Army (FSA) units and members of the jihadist al-Nusra Front occupied Maaloula for several hours on Thursday before withdrawing when their positions were bombed by government warplanes.

Then on Sunday, activists said government soldiers and pro-government militiamen had been forced to pull back to the outskirts following a fresh rebel assault.

Since then, most of the town's 3,300 residents have fled to safer parts of the country including Damascus, where some told the BBC that three people had been killed and six kidnapped.

They said al-Nusra fighters had desecrated churches and statues.

However, our correspondent in Maaloula has seen statues in churches which were left undamaged.

Withdrawal offer

Maaloula has several churches and important monasteries, including Deir Mar Takla, which is visited by many Christians and Muslim pilgrims.

Inscriptions found in some of the caves in the mountainside on which the town sits confirm it as one of the earliest centres of Christianity in the world, and some residents can still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ.

The rebels declared on Tuesday that they would withdraw from Maaloula provided that pro-government forces did not take their place.

Jeremy Bowen's report on the families who fled Maaloula for Damascus

"To ensure no blood is spilt and that the properties of the people of Maaloula are kept safe, the Free Syrian Army announces that the town of Maaloula will be kept out of the struggle between the FSA and the regime army," a spokesman said in an online video.

But heavy fighting was continuing on Wednesday afternoon when our correspondent arrived in Maaloula.

He said both government soldiers and local members of the National Defence Forces, a pro-government militia, were still exchanging fire with al-Nusra fighters inside the town. He also saw half a dozen government casualties being taken away for treatment.

The fighting in Maaloula has highlighted the delicate position of Syria's Christian minority.

Maaloula (7 September 2013) Maaloula is one of the earliest centres of Christianity in the world.
Online video showing rebel fighter in Maaloula (4 September 2013) The town was overrun last week by rebel forces led by the al-Nusra Front, which is linked to al-Qaeda.
An online video from a rebel group shows smoke rising from the St Sarkis monastery after shelling (6 September 2013) Government troops were forced to withdraw to the outskirts of the town. In one online video, smoke was seen rising from the St Sarkis monastery
Church in Maaloula (7 September 2013) In normal times, Maaloula is a magnet for tourists, drawn by its ancient monasteries and hermits' caves, and the fact that its people still speak Aramaic.
Entrance to Maaloula (7 September 2013) Now, there are fears for that heritage, with reports that militant Islamist rebels have attacked religious buildings and statues.
Soldiers outside Maaloula (7 September 2013) But opposition leaders have blamed pro-regime militias for that, accusing the government of terrorising minorities while trying to pose as their protectors.
People carry the coffins of three Maaloula residents through the streets of Damascus (10 September 2013) On Tuesday, hundreds of Christians attended funerals in the capital's Damascus for three Maaloula residents killed in the fighting.
A woman weeps at the funerals for three Maaloula residents in Damascus (10 September 2013) "Maaloula is the wound of Christ," mourners chanted as they marched through the narrow streets of the Old City's Christian quarter.

When the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad erupted in March 2011, many Christians were cautious and tried to avoid taking sides.

However, as the crackdown by security forces intensified and opposition supporters took up arms, they were gradually drawn into the conflict.

Many fear that if the secular government is overthrown, they will be targeted by Sunni jihadist rebels calling for the establishment of an Islamic state and that Christian communities will be destroyed, as many were in Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003.

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