Activists and residents say Syrian rebels have taken control of parts of an ancient Christian town in the rugged Qalamoun region near Damascus.

Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a resident said Monday that rebels were steadily seizing swathes of Maaloula.

The resident said hardline Islamic brigades first began attacking Syrian forces in the town three days ago. He said Maaloula residents fled to Damascus, fearing rebels would punish them for supporting the government of Bashar Assad and because they are Christians. The resident requested anonymity, fearing for his safety.

In previous battles, hardline rebels have desecrated churches but largely left Christians alone.

Rebels and Assad-loyal forces are clashing in the Qalamoun area over a strategic highway and smuggling routes from neighboring Lebanon.