Syrian rebels to retreat from Christian town of Maaloula
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Syrian rebel factions said Tuesday that they would withdraw from Maaloula, just days after seizing control. A rebel coalition spokesman said the move was conditional on the Syrian army also agreeing not to enter the historic Christian town.
Syria's anti-regime rebel fighters announced Tuesday that they would withdraw from Maaloula near Damascus, days after they took control of the historic Christian town.
"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 rebel spokesman said in a video posted online.
The spokesman for the Qalamun Liberation Front, which groups several anti-regime forces of the Qalamun area near Damascus, said the withdrawal was "conditional" on the Syrian army also agreeing not to enter the town.
"The army and its shabiha (militias) must not enter into the town," said the unnamed spokesman.
A Syrian security source told AFP on Wednesday that the rebels had not yet withdrawn and that the army was looking to rout them.
"The army has not yet retaken Maalula," he said, on condition of anonymity. "The battles are raging on, but [the army] is making progress."
Maaloula, home to about 5,000 people, is strategically important for rebels, who are trying to tighten their grip on the area around Damascus and already have bases all around the capital.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and residents said on Sunday that rebel forces, including al-Nusra jihadists linked to al Qaeda, had overrun Maaloula in the preceding days.
The Britain-based Observatory said the al-Nusra Front, which has pledged allegiance to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, was among the forces that had taken control of the town.
Fighters affiliated with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army had also reportedly entered Maaloula.
Forced to convert
"They arrived in our town at dawn on Wednesday and shouted 'We are from the al-Nusra Front and have come to make lives miserable for the Crusaders," a term for Christians used by Islamists, said a frightened woman who identified herself as Marie.
She spoke to AFP in Damascus, where she was attending the burial of three Christians from Maaloula killed in last week's fighting. The jihadists forced at least one person to convert to Islam at gunpoint and executed another, residents said Tuesday.
A spokesman for a key rebel battalion involved in the takeover said the decision to withdraw applies to all opposition fighters, including the jihadist al-Nusra Front.
"Some Al-Nusra fighters were involved in the battle, but for the most part they were Syrians, not foreign (jihadists). The decision to withdraw applies to all fighters, and doesn't exclude al-Nusra," spokesman Ibrahim al-Idelbi of Ahfad al-Rasul told AFP.
Idelbi accused the Syrian army of bombing the town after opposition fighters entered it in order to try to discredit the rebels.
"The regime wants to portray us as extremists, but we would not target any sacred places," Idelbi said.
Amateur video distributed by activists showed damage to the facade of a convent in Maaloula, while the unidentified cameraman says the regime used "tank and rocket fire" to target the building.
"We have withdrawn from Maaloula because we want to show that our goal is not to destroy but to liberate," Idelbi said. "We will stay on the edges of Maaloula, but residents who have left the town can, of course, return safely."
Civilians started fleeing the town nearly a week ago, fearing an imminent escalation.
Picturesque Maaloula, nestled under a large cliff, is considered a symbol of the Christian presence in Syria.
Many of its inhabitants speak Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ and which is only used by small, scattered communities around the world.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)
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