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Syria rebels 'still in Christian town Maalula'

A spokesman for the Syrian rebels said 'the army and its shabiha (militants) should not enter the town'

AFP , Wednesday 11 Sep 2013
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Syrian rebels were still positioned in a historic Christian town near Damascus on Wednesday, a day after they announced they were ready to withdraw, a security source told AFP.

"The army has not yet retaken Maalula. The battles are raging on, but (the army) is making progress," the source said on condition of anonymity.

"The rebels still hold some pockets of resistance inside Maalula and its surroundings," the source added.

Rebels announced on Tuesday they would withdraw from Maalula, but that their withdrawal was "conditional" on pro-regime forces not taking their place.

"The army and its shabiha (militias) must not enter into the town," a spokesman for the rebels said via an online video statement.

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

On Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and residents said rebel forces, including jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda, had overrun Maalula.

The town, home to about 5,000 people, is strategically important for rebels, who are trying to tighten their grip around Damascus and already have bases all around the capital.

Civilians started fleeing the town nearly a week ago, fearing an imminent escalation.

Picturesque Maalula, nestled under a large cliff, is considered a symbol of the Christian presence in Syria.

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