Syrian government troops battled Al-Qaeda-linked rebels over a regime-held Christian village in western Syria for the second day Thursday, as world leaders gathered in Russia for an economic summit expected to be overshadowed by the prospect of US-led strikes against the Damascus regime.
Residents of Maaloula said the militants entered the village late Wednesday. Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the fighters included members of Al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat Al-Nusra (Al-Nusra Front).
Despite heavy army presence in the village, Abdul-Rahman said the rebels patrolled its streets on foot and in vehicles, briefly surrounding a church and a mosque before leaving early Thursday.
The rebels launched the assault on the ancient Christian village of Maaloula — which is on a UNESCO list of tentative world heritage sites — Wednesday after an Al-Nusra fighter blew himself up at a regime checkpoint at the entrance to the mountain village.
The village, about 40 miles (60 kilometers) northeast of Damascus, is home to about 2,000 residents, some of whom still speak a version of Aramaic, the ancient language of biblical times believed to have been spoken by Jesus.
Heavy clashes between President Bashar Al-Assad's troops and Al-Nusra Front fighters persisted in surrounding mountains Thursday, according to the Observatory, which collects information from a network of anti-regime activists.
Speaking by phone from a convent in the village, a nun told The Associated Press that the rebels left a mountaintop hotel Thursday after capturing it a day earlier. The nun said the frightened residents expect the Islamic militants to return to the Safir Hotel and resume shelling the community below.
"It's their home now," the nun said. She spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The Syrian conflict started in March 2011 as largely peaceful protests against Al-Assad's rule. It turned to bloody civil war after opposition supporters took up arms to fight a brutal government crackdown on dissent. After two years of fighting, the civil war hit a stalemate with the rebels controlling much of the countryside in the north, east and south, and the regime holding on to most urban centres in the west, where the majority of Syrians live.
The four-decade iron rule of the Al-Assad family over Syria long has rested on support from the country's ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians, Shia Muslims and Kurds. The Al-Assad family and key regime figures are Alawites, followers of an offshoot of Shia Islam, while most rebels and their supporters are Sunni Muslims.
More than 100,000 people have been killed in the war, with nearly seven million people uprooted from their homes.
United Nations humanitarian chief Valerie Amos met with Syrian officials in the capital Thursday, lobbying them for access to civilians trapped in areas where fighting has raged.
An alleged chemical attack near Damascus in August has brought the US to the brink of carrying out punitive airstrikes on Syria after the Obama administration concluded that Al-Assad's forces were responsible.
President Barack Obama has been lobbying for international and domestic support for punishing Al-Assad's regime, which the US says fired rockets loaded with the nerve agent sarin on rebel-held areas near Damascus before dawn 21 August, killing hundreds of people.
Obama has called chemical weapons use a "red line." Top administration officials have argued before the US Senate and around the world that Al-Assad would take inaction by Washington as a license for further brutality against his people.
So far, however, Obama has won little international backing for action. Among major allies, only France has offered publicly to join the US in a strike.
At the Group of 20 (G20) economic summit in St Petersburg, Obama will later Thursday confront Syria's closest supporter, Russia's Vladimir Putin, as well as foreign leaders sceptical of his call for international military intervention in Syria.
Moscow and Washington have sharply disagreed over ways to end the Syria bloodshed, with Russia firmly supporting Al-Assad's regime and protecting it from punitive actions in the United Nations. The US has backed the opposition and has repeatedly called on Al-Assad to step down. He has refused and the US has been supporting the rebels with non-lethal aid and by training some rebel units in neighbouring Jordan.
Putin insists Obama has yet to prove his case for striking Syria, although Putin appeared to have tempered his rhetoric slightly in a pre-summit interview Wednesday with The Associated Press. He said then that he wouldn't rule out backing a UN resolution if it can be proven Al-Assad used chemical weapons, as the US has alleged.