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ICC Note: Fighting continues between government forces and rebel groups over the town of Maaloula in the mountains outside the capital of Damascus. The town which is located near a road linking Damascus and the city of Homs carries some strategic importance for the two forces. The city has a significant Christian population and also is home to a number of historical churches and monasteries that have made it a pilgrimage destination for Christians and Muslims. It is also one of the last known places to speak the Aramaic language, believed to be the language that Jesus spoke.
9/09/2013 Syria (Reuters) – Syrian government forces launched an offensive to wrest back control of an historic Christian town north of Damascus on Monday, activists said.
In the past six days, the town of Maaloula has already changed hands three times between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and rebel groups, some of which are linked to al Qaeda.
Combatants say the intensity of fighting over the town is due to its strategic location near the road leading from Damascus to the central city of Homs.
But fighting in an area with such religious symbolism could increase anxieties among the Christian minority, who have watched sectarian violence between majority Sunni Muslims and the Alawite minority overshadow the revolt against Assad’s rule.
The fighting near Maaloula, in the Qalamoun mountains north of the capital, threatens ancient Christian sites nestled in the hillsides that were a site of pilgrimage for Christians and Muslims alike.
The Britain-based Observatory, which opposes Assad, said that troops and militia loyal to the president re-entered Maaloula early Saturday but withdrew in the evening when rebels brought in reinforcements.
Retreating government forces continued to shell and clash with insurgents on the outskirts of Maaloula on Sunday and Monday, said Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Observatory, though violence inside the town abated on Monday morning.
Maaloula has several churches and important monasteries as well as the Greek Orthodox nunnery Mar Thecla, visited by many Christians and Muslims who are drawn by its reputation as a holy place where the sick would be miraculously healed.
A sizeable number of the inhabitants of Maaloula, as well as Sarkha and Jabaadeen, two nearby Sunni towns, still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ.
Abdelrahman said 18 rebel fighters were killed and over 100 injured during Saturday’s fighting. He could not confirm the extent of casualties among government forces.
Restrictions by Syrian authorities on independent media make it difficult to verify these accounts.
Most residents had fled Maaloula when fighting erupted last Wednesday around a roadblock manned by government fighters.
Rebels entered the town later that day but withdrew on Thursday. The Mother Superior at Mar Thecla denied reports circulated by pro-government groups that rebels had pillaged Christian holy sites.

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