Syria rebels: snipers block nuns’ evacuation

Photo: Syria rebels: snipers block nuns’ evacuation / Arabic region

Fire by snipers loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is blocking efforts to evacuate 12 Syrian and Lebanese Orthodox nuns from their convent in the town of Maalula, which was overrun by rebels on Monday, Al Arabiya News Channel reported Tuesday, citing rebel sources.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed on Monday that fighters from the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front had captured the historic town of Maaloula after several days of fighting.

The observatory rejected earlier reports that the nuns were kidnapped by rebels.

Vatican Radio reported, citing Mario Zenari, the nuncio (ambassador) of the Holy See in Syria, on Tuesday the rebels were able to move some of the nuns from Maaloula to Yabroud, about 20 km (13 miles) to the north.

Zenari said the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate had told him armed men had entered the monastery on Monday afternoon.

"They forced the sisters to evacuate and to follow them towards Yabroud. At this moment we cannot say if this is a kidnapping or an evacuation," he told Reuters by telephone from Damascus. "I heard now there is a very fierce conflict going on in Maaloula."

Reached by phone, the mother superior of the Saydnaya convent in Damascus province, Sivronia Nabhan, told AFP she had spoken with her Maalula counterpart, who confirmed the nuns were in Yabrud.

Maalula mother superior Pelagia Sayyaf said "she and the 11 other nuns, accompanied by three young maids, were comfortably installed in a house in Yabrud and no one was bothering them," Nabhan said.

The two nuns spoke on Monday evening, Nabhan added.

Zenari said it was unclear why the nuns had been forced to leave Maalula and "what the goal of this action is."

The nuns were first reported missing on Monday, as rebel forces recaptured Maalula, which lies north of Damascus.

They were among the few residents left in the hamlet, and were sheltering inside the Mar Takla convent.

In September, they were trapped inside the building with dozens of orphans during the first round of fighting between regime forces and rebels in the town.

But Zenari said the orphans had long been evacuated from the town.

Maalula, a picturesque village cut into the cliffs some 55 kilometers (35 miles) north of Damascus, has long been a symbol of the ancient Christian presence in Syria.

Its residents are some of the few left in the world who speak Aramaic, the language that Jesus Christ is believed to have spoken.

Rebels briefly captured the town in September, before being quickly forced back to its outskirts by regime forces.

But with the army pressing an advance elsewhere in the surrounding Qalamoun region, opposition fighters seized the heart of the town once again on Monday.

An estimated 126,000 people have been killed in Syria since President Bashar al-Assad's regime launched a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests nearly three years ago, setting off a full-blown civil war that has displaced millions.

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