DAMASCUS, Syria – Six nuns were trapped in an ancient pro-government Christian village, the government said Monday, after al Qaeda linked rebels seized large swaths of the area.
Syrian army tanks were positioned around Maaloula as the fighting sent smoke wafting over the scenic village nestled in hills about 40 miles northeast of the capital, Damascus.
Forces loyal to President Bashar Assad are trying to keep rebels led by the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, from advancing. Opposition fighters have taken control of several parts of the village since blowing up a checkpoint at its entrance on Friday, according to reports by the state news agency and opposition activists.
The fighting is part of a wider battle over a string of towns and villages in the rugged Qalamoun border region in an effort to control a strategic highway and smuggling routes from neighboring Lebanon. The town had been firmly in the government's grip but surrounded by rebel-held territory until Friday.
Five nuns and their Mother Superior, Pelagia Sayaf were trapped in the Mar Takla Convent, which sits above Maaloula, according to SANA.
Syria's Minister of Social Affairs, Kindah al-Shammat, demanded that countries supporting the rebels pressure them to release the nuns.
Many of the some 3,000 residents have already fled to Damascus, fearing rebels would punish them for supporting Assad and because they are Christians, one of the villagers said in a telephone interview. He spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for his safety. Others have taken shelter in the convent.
While two bishops and a priest have been kidnapped by rebels, no nuns have been reported harmed in the three-year conflict, which began as a popular uprising against Assad but quickly morphed into a civil war.
Syria's minorities, including Christians, have mostly sided with Assad's rule or remained neutral, fearing for their fate if rebels, dominated by Islamic extremists, come to power.
In the past, rebels have seized parts of Maaloula only to be driven out within a few days by government forces.
Maaloula was a major tourist attraction before the conflict began in March 2011. Some of its residents still speak a version of Aramaic, a biblical language spoken by Jesus.