Syria troops retake Christian town of Maalula

AFP , Monday 14 Apr 2014

Historic city of Maaloula, northeast of Damascus (Photo: Reuters)

Syrian regime troops retook the ancient Christian town of Maalula on Monday, a day after President Bashar al-Assad said the conflict was turning in his government's favour.

"The army has taken full control of Maalula and restored security and stability. Terrorism has been defeated in Qalamun," a security official told AFP, referring to the region in which Maalula is located.

"This operation comes in the context of the capture of Qalamun. A large number of terrorists were killed and others who fled are being pursued," added the official, who asked not to be named.

Syria's regime uses the term "terrorists" to refer to all those who seek Assad's overthrow.

Maalula's capture "reinforces control of the crossing points on the border" with Lebanon, the official added.

It comes after a string of regime successes in the strategic Qalamun region, including the seizure of the former rebel bastion of Yabrud last month.

The Syrian regime has made securing Qalamun a key priority in order to protect the highway linking Damascus to Homs that runs through the region, as well as to sever rebel supply lines across the border with Lebanon.

Maalula fell to rebel forces last December, as the regime focused its attention on capturing towns along the Damascus-Homs highway.

The picturesque town is considered a symbol of the ancient Christian presence in Syria, and its 5,000 pre-war residents are among the few in the world who still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ.

When the town was seized by rebels, 13 nuns were seized from its convent and held by Al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters until a prisoner swap with the regime in March.



Maalula's fall comes a day after Assad said his government was gaining the upper hand in the conflict that began in March 2011 and has left more than 150,000 people dead.

"This is a turning point in the crisis, both militarily in terms of the army's achievements in the war against terror, and socially in terms of national reconciliation processes and growing awareness of the truth behind the (attacks) targeting the country," state news agency SANA quoted the president as saying.

"The state is trying to restore security and stability in the main areas that the terrorists have struck," said Assad, adding, "We will go after their positions and sleeper cells later."

The uprising against Assad began in March 2011 with peaceful anti-government protests that were suppressed with force.

After several months, the opposition took up arms and the uprising spiralled into a bloody civil war that Damascus claims is the result of a foreign-backed "terrorist" plot.

Assad said Sunday that his country "is not only being targeted because of its geo-political significance... but because of its historic role in the region and its big influence on the Arab street."

Syria, he said, "is subject to a bid to take control of its independent decision-making, and an attempt to change its policy from one that suits the Syrian people's interests."

Elsewhere in Syria on Monday, warplanes carried out several air strikes on parts of the central city of Homs under government siege.

Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman said air strikes were reported on the Old City of Homs, adding that the regime had reinforced its presence around the neighbourhoods.

The regime has laid siege to rebel-held parts of Homs for nearly two years, and earlier this year the UN oversaw an operation that evacuated around half of some 3,000 people trapped in the area.

And across the border in Lebanon, the National News Agency said that three rockets fired from Syria landed in the area of the Shiite village of Labweh.

The conflict in Syria has regularly spilled into Lebanon.

Shiite villages that support Lebanon's Hezbollah -- a staunch ally of the Assad regime -- have come under rocket fire, and Syrian warplanes have targeted Sunni border areas that back the rebels.

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