The sound of artillery reverberated through a predominantly Christian village north of Damascus as government troops and al-Qaeda-linked rebels battled for control of the mountainside sanctuary.
The hit-and-run attacks on the ancient village of Maaloula, one of the few places in the world where residents still speak Aramaic, highlighted fears among Syria’s religious minorities about the growing role of extremists among those fighting in the civil war to topple President Bashar Assad’s regime.
The fighting comes as President Barack Obama’s administration pressed the US Congress for its authorisation of a military strike against the Assad regime, while the president arrived at a G-20 summit in Russia expected to be overshadowed by Syria.
The fighting in Maaloula, a scenic village of about 3300 perched high in the mountains, began early on Wednesday when militants from Jabhat al-Nusra stormed in after a suicide bomber struck an army checkpoint guarding the entrance.
The group – listed as a terrorist organisation by the US State Department – is one of the most effective fighting forces among Syrian rebels. The suicide attack triggered battles that terrorised residents in the village, famous for two of the oldest surviving monasteries in Syria – Mar Sarkis and Mar Takla.
Online video showed rebels in the streets, some firing truck-mounted heavy machine guns in the direction of the surrounding mountains. The video appeared authentic and matched Associated Press reporting on the fighting.
Residents said on Wednesday the rebels took over the mountaintop Safir hotel and were firing in the direction of the community below.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that despite a heavy army presence in the village, the rebels staged hit-and-run attacks, at one point patrolling the streets on foot and in vehicles, and briefly surrounding a church and a mosque before leaving early Thursday.
Heavy fighting around the village, which is on a UNESCO list of tentative world heritage sites – continued throughout the day, and heavy artillery echoed in the village.
“The stones are shaking,” said a nun at the Mar Takla monastery. “We don’t know if the rebels have left or not, nobody dares go out.”
Al-Mayadeen TV, a Lebanese station who has an embed with the Syrian army, broadcast live images from the area Thursday evening that showed smoke rising from behind the hotel, suggesting the military was shelling it.
The nun said about 100 people from the village took refuge in the St. Takla convent that she helps run. The 27 orphans who live there had been taken to nearby caves overnight “so they were not scared,” she said.
Maaloula, about 60km northeast of Damascus, had been firmly under the regime’s grip, despite sitting in the middle of rebel-held territory east and north of the capital. The village was a major tourist attraction before the civil war. Some of its residents still speak a version of Aramaic, the language of biblical times believed to have been used by Jesus.