Islamist fighters have captured the ancient quarter of Maaloula, a predominantly Christian town and UNESCO heritage site in Syria, and are holding captive several nuns and their mother superior from the St. Thecla Convent, SANA reported.
The state news agency said that attackers “committed acts of vandalism in the town’s neighborhoods and around the convent, attacking locals and targeting them with sniper fire.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said Monday that fighters from the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front had captured the old quarter of Maaloula after several days of fierce fighting. However, they said they could not confirm information regarding the convent.
The Observatory also reported that four rebels were killed in fighting in the area on Monday. Over the weekend militants tried to seize the town, but were fought off by the local militia forces and Syrian soldiers.
Maaloula has a population of about 5,000 and is strategically important to both sides because of its proximity to Damascus. It is also close to the strategic central highway that links the capital to Homs.
Maaloula was the scene of heavy fighting in September when it changed hands at least four times, with government forces eventually gaining the upper hand.
At the time residents told RT’s correspondent Maria Finoshina who was in Maaloula that Islamist rebels resorted to looting, executions and forcing residents to convert to Islam.
Maaloula is home to many UNESCO world heritage sites, such as shrines and monasteries, and is one of the birth places of Christianity. It is also one of the few places in the world where Western Aramaic is still spoken, a biblical language similar to what Jesus would have spoken.
“In this town are situated some of the most ancient churches and shrines, which are sacred for Christian believers,” said the Russian Foreign Ministry in a statement in September.