BEIRUT: Syrian rebels, including jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda, took control of the Christian town of Maalula, north of Damascus on Saturday.
The clashes first erupted on Wednesday, when Al-Nusra Front fighters, who have pledged allegience to Al-Qaeda, and other rebels attacked a regime checkpoint at one entrance to the town.
Maalula, home to around 5,000 residents, is of strategic importance for the rebels who are trying to tighten their grip around Damascus. It would add a northern post to existing bases in the south and west of the city.
Capturing the town, which lies around 55 kilometres north of the capital, could also help rebels threaten the nearby highway between Damascus and Homs, a supply route used by the regime.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 17 rebels were killed and more than 100 wounded overnight in the ensuing battle.
Dozens of regime forces and pro-militia members were also killed or wounded in the fighting.
“Overnight, Syrian regime troops moved into the village, but rebel forces sent reinforcements and were able to take control of the entire town,” said the Observatory director, Rami Abdel Rahman.
He added that “fierce fighting broke out between regime forces and rebel fighters overnight, and the soldiers withdrew to the outskirts of the town.”
A Maalula resident, reached by phone, confirmed that regime forces had withdrawn from the area and rebel forces were now in control. He said the situation on the ground was quiet.
“The rebels are inside Maalula, all of Maalula. The government troops have pulled out of Maalula,” the resident said, requesting anonymity.
However, troops were still stationed around the town, raising the possibility of renewed fighting.
Maalula lies under a large cliff and is considered a symbol of the Christian presence in Syria.
Wednesday's advance raised fears of attacks against churches or Christians in the town but on Friday, the opposition Syrian National Coalition said rebels had withdrawn from the area.
On Saturday, the Observatory said rebel forces were fighting pro-regime militias in the west of the town, and were also engaged in clashes with Syrian troops on the outskirts of Maalula.