Battle for Syria Christian town of Maaloula continues

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The BBC's Jeremy Bowen was in 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.

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.

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Christians from Maaloula take refuge in a Greek Catholic cathedral

"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.

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Maaloula is one of the earliest centres of Christianity in the world.
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The town was overrun last week by rebel forces led by the al-Nusra Front, which is linked to al-Qaeda.
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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
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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.
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Now, there are fears for that heritage, with reports that militant Islamist rebels have attacked religious buildings and statues.
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But opposition leaders have blamed pro-regime militias for that, accusing the government of terrorising minorities while trying to pose as their protectors.
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On Tuesday, hundreds of Christians attended funerals in the capital's Damascus for three Maaloula residents killed in the fighting.
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"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.