New clashes have broken out between rebel fighters and Syrian regime forces in and around the historic Christian town of Maalula, a watchdog said on Saturday.
“There are clashes just inside the town in the western district between Popular Committees (pro-regime militia) and rebel forces,” Rami Abdul Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP.
“There are also clashes between soldiers backed by militias and rebel fighters around the area of one of the entrances to Maalula,” he said.
Maalula is a symbol of the Christian presence in Syria, and many of its inhabitants speak Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ that only small, scattered communities around the world still use.
The Observatory said regime forces launched air strikes around the outskirts of the ancient shrine city.
The fighting on the outskirts of the town started with an army attack on a group of rebels in a hotel on a nearby hill.
Citing a military source, state television said the army had targeted the hotel and surrounding positions where “terrorists” were stationed, killing some of them and destroying their weapons.
It added troops were pursuing members of the jihadist Al-Nusra Front in the area, which is north of Damascus.
The Observatory said the army had strengthened its presence at posts evacuated overnight between Thursday and Friday by the rebels at one entrance to Maalula.
The opposition National Coalition said this week that members of the Free Syrian Army had withdrawn from Maalula.
“Free Syrian Army units on Wednesday destroyed posts at Maalula and Jabadine held by the army on the Damascus-Homs road after fierce clashes with President Bashar al-Assad's forces and auxiliaries,” it said.
“The FSA was stationed for several hours in the vicinity, but did not attack any church or convent.”
The statement came after the Observatory said on Wednesday that said jihadist al-Nusra Front fighters had seized a military post at Maalula after a suicide attack.
Christians constitute some five percent of Syria’s population, a patchwork of religious and ethnic groups.
Elsewhere in Syria, the Observatory said on Saturday 14 rebels and two civilians were killed in regime shelling of the Kiswa and Maqbaliya, two areas south of Damascus.
The Britain-based monitoring group also reported bombardments in Zamalka, east of Damascus, as well as Daraya and Moadamiyat al-Sham in the southern outskirts of the capital.
New clashes in historic Syrian Christian town, says watchdog