Syrian troops launch attack on hills around Christian village

Syrian troops launched an attack Monday on hills overlooking a Christian-majority village near the capital Damascus, two days after rebel forces captured the ancient community, an activist group said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighters from the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front and the Qalamon Liberation Front still control Maaloula, an ancient village that is home to two of the oldest surviving monasteries in Syria. Rebels captured the village on Saturday.

The battle has thrown a spotlight on the deep-seated fears that many of Syria’s religious minorities harbor about the growing role of Islamic extremists on the rebel side in Syria’s civil war.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, said troops attacked the hills around Maaloula early Monday under the cover of heavy shelling. He said the aim of the troops appears to “to isolate the rebels in the village.”

The village, famous for being home to two of the oldest surviving monasteries in Syria, is nearly empty of its inhabitants. Only around 50 people remain there, according to a resident who left the area in the past days.

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