Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV channel said three of its staff were killed on Monday after the television crew came under attack in the ancient Syrian Christian town of Maaloula, as Syrian regime troops retook the town on the same day.
The channel identified the men as reporter Hamzah Hajj Hassan, cameraman Mohammad Mantash, and technician Halim Allaw. Additionally, several other crew members were wounded, Beirut-based newspaper The Daily Star reported.
The station’s director general, Ibrahim Farhat, said it was not clear whether the crew was specifically targeted, according to the Associated Press.
“We will not hesitate to offer martyrs for the sake of the profession... they were carrying out their professional duty in covering events,” he said.
A news anchor announced the death of Hassan and Allaw on the channel, saying that “takfiri [Islamic extremist] terrorists” killed the men while they were covering the Syrian army’s offensive in Maaloula, the newspaper reported.
The near total collapse of rebels along a key supply route that has long funneled weapons to opposition-held districts around Damascus helps strengthen President Bashar al-Assad’s position in and around the capital ahead of presidential elections during which he intends to run for a third term.
However, rebels still hold a few towns and other pockets in Qalamoun. Control of the region means control over the flow of weapons and fighters to Ghouta, a sprawling opposition area east of Damascus from which rebels have been firing mortars into the capital.
Syrian rebels launched an offensive in Latakia province last month, party in response to the losses in Qalamoun, capturing the last border crossing point with Turkey that was still under government control as well as several towns. Although the army has been unable to reverse the rebels’ gains in Latakia, it has managed to stall any further rebel advances.
The Syrian army has focused its strategy on areas around Damascus, seat of Assad’s power, particularly ahead of presidential elections scheduled to be held by summer. Assad appears poised to seek re-election, even as the Syrian conflict rampages into its fourth year with large parts of the country either in ruins or under opposition control and more than 150,000 people killed.
A Syria military statement issued Monday said the successive victories by the Syrian army were in line with the Syrian government’s “determination to win the war against takfiris.”
The town of Maaloula, located around 60 kilometers northeast of the capital and home to a large Christian population, serves as an important symbolic prize for the government in its quest to be seen as protector of religious minorities, including Syria’s Christians. Some Maaloula residents still speak a version of Aramaic, the language of biblical times believed to have been used by Jesus.
Rebels had taken the town and been driven out of it twice before. This latest time, rebels seized the village in early December.
Those fighters included gunmen from the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, who abducted more than a dozen Greek Orthodox nuns from their convent during the fighting, fueling fears that hard-line Muslims were targeting Christians. The nuns were released unharmed in March. In exchange, the Syrian government reportedly released dozens of women from prison.
Christian clerics hailed the rebels’ ouster from Maaloula with the patriarch of the Greek Catholic church Gregory III Laham declaring the army’s victory there as a symbol of liberation of “every human being and every inch of Syria.”
(With the Associated Press)SHOW MORE