BEIRUT – Syrian government forces battled Tuesday with Al Qaeda-linked rebels trying to capture an ancient Christian town north of Damascus, activists and the state media said.
The Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, appears to have targeted Sadad because of its strategic location near the main highway north of Damascus, rather than because it is Christian. But hard-liners among the rebels are hostile to Syria's Christian minority, who tend to support the government of President Bashar Assad, and other Al Qaeda-linked fighters have damaged and desecrated churches in areas they have seized.
The assault on Sadad, some 60 miles north of Damascus, began at dawn Monday, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Local police fought back the initial assault and were reinforced by the army.
The rebel attack seemed to target a chief hospital in the town, said the Observatory, which monitors fighting through a network of activists on the ground. He said that there was also fighting in the nearby town of Muhin and that the Nusra Front controlled the main road leading to Damascus.
In September, rebels including Nusra Front members briefly captured the Christian town of Maaloula, northeast of Damascus. Maaloula is an ancient village that is home to two of the oldest surviving monasteries in Syria. Troops recaptured most of the town days after the rebels took it.
President Bashar Assad has drawn support from Syria's patchwork of ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians and members of his Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot, in the country's civil war, now in its third year. The rebels are dominated by Syria's Sunni Muslim majority.
Al Qaeda-linked militant groups such as the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are among the most active rebel factions in Syria. They have fought other rebel brigades to seize strategic border areas, and are also battling Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.
Also Tuesday, mortar rounds slammed into a pro-government suburb on the outskirts of Damascus, killing at least two people, said the state SANA news agency and the Observatory. It added that a teacher and 14 students were wounded when a mortar round hit a school in the area.
It wasn't immediately clear who was behind the shelling but rebels have previously targeted Jaramana, home to Christians and the Druse religious group. It is close to another suburb, Mleiha, where fighting between rebels and government forces has been raging for days.
The Observatory reported at least three air raids and several attacks by helicopter gunships on the rebel-held town of Safira, near a likely chemical weapons facility. The Observatory said one of the helicopter attacks hit an area where refugees were encamped, killing at least seven people including a child.
Also Tuesday, Sigrid Kaag, the head of the team charged with destroying Syria's chemical weapons, said Damascus had so far "fully cooperated" with the mission.
The goal of the joint U.N. and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons mission is to destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, all chemical precursors, and the equipment to produce the deadly weapons by mid-2014.
"To date, the Government of Syria has fully cooperated in supporting the work of the advance team and the OPCW-UN Joint Mission," said Kaag, who was appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for the post earlier this month, in the Syrian capital of Damascus.
"By joining the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Syrian Government has indicated its commitment to the task," she said referring to Syria's joining of the OPCW.
She added that the "timeframes are challenging given the goal of the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons program in the first half of 2014."
Meanwhile, international inspectors to destroy Syria's chemical weapons capability said they had visited 17 sites since they began their work at the beginning of October. In a statement issued late Monday, they said they had destroyed "critical equipment to make the facilities inoperable."