Al-Qaida-linked Syria rebels hit Christian village

Smoke rises from buildings Wednesday due to heavy clashes between Free Syrian army fighters and government forces in Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, Syria.

Smoke rises from buildings Wednesday due to heavy clashes between Free Syrian army fighters and government forces in Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, Syria. Photo by The Associated Press.

BEIRUT (AP) — Al-Qaida-linked rebels launched an assault Wednesday on a regime-held Christian village in the densely populated west of Syria and new clashes erupted near the capital, Damascus — part of a brutal battle of attrition each side believes it can win despite more than two years of deadlock.

As the world focused on possible U.S. military action against Syria, rebels commandeered a mountaintop hotel in the village of Maaloula and shelled the community below, said a nun, speaking by phone from a convent in the village. She spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The attack came hours before a Senate panel voted to give President Barack Obama authority to use military force against Syria — the first time lawmakers have voted to allow military action since the October 2002 votes authorizing the invasion of Iraq. Obama has been lobbying for international and domestic support for punishing President Bashar Assad’s regime, which the U.S. says fired rockets loaded with the nerve agent sarin on rebel-held areas near Damascus before dawn on Aug. 21, killing hundreds of civilians.

So far, however, he has won little international backing for action. Among major allies, only France has offered publicly to join the U.S. in a strike.

In a parliament debate, France’s Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault made a passionate appeal for intervention in Syria, placing the blame for the alleged chemical attack on Assad and warning that inaction could let him carry out more atrocities.

The debate ended without a vote since President Francois Hollande can order a military operation without one.

The civil war in Syria hit a stalemate almost from the start. The rebels control much of the countryside in the north, east and south, but the regime is hanging on to most urban centers in the west, where the majority of Syrians live.

The dawn assault on the predominantly Christian village of Maaloula was carried out by rebels from the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra group, according to a Syrian government official and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime group.

At the start of the attack, an al-Nusra fighter blew himself up at a regime checkpoint at the entrance to the village, said the Observatory, which collects information from a network of anti-regime activists.

The suicide attack was followed by fighting between the rebels and regime forces, the Observatory and a nun in the village said. Eventually, the rebels seized the checkpoint, disabled two tanks and an armored personnel carrier and killed eight regime soldiers in fighting, the British-based group said.

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