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Assad forces retake Maaloula

17 April 2014

REUTERS

Damaged: debris lies inside the church in Mar Sarkis monastery, Maaloula, wrecked after President Assad's forces retook the town on Monday

Damaged: debris lies inside the church in Mar Sarkis monastery, Maaloula, wrecked after President Assad's forces retook the town on Monday

GOVERNMENT forces in Syria have once again captured the small town of Maaloula, north of Damascus, where inhabitants converse in both Arabic and Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ. Troops backed by fighters from the Lebanese Shia group Hizbollah entered the town on Monday.

The retaking of Maaloula is part of a wider offensive over recent days in which forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad cut off rebel supply routes to Lebanon and regained control of parts of the arterial highway from Damascus northwards to Homs and Aleppo.

Maaloula's misfortune in finding itself in such a strategically important position for both sides in the conflict has meant that the ancient town in the Qalamoun mountains has constantly been fought over: it has changed hands four times in the past three years.

It was in December last year, when the town was under the control of the al-Qaeda-backed al-Nusra Front Islamic group, that 13 nuns were abducted from the Mar Takla convent and taken to Yabroud, close to the Lebanese border (News, 13 December 2013). They were released in March as part of a prisoner-exchange agreement, shortly before government troops stormed and recaptured Yabroud (News, 14 March).

Maaloula has paid a price for being at the centre of so much fighting. Most of its inhabitants fled long ago, leaving churches and monasteries unguarded and uncared for. The fourth-century Mar Sarkis Greek Orthodox monastery, on a hilltop close to the town, is one of the buildings to have been caught up in the conflict, and crosses and ancient religious paintings have been damaged.

Syrian state television showed what it said were the bodies of al-Nusra fighters killed during last weekend's government assault on Maaloula.

President al-Assad said on Sunday that the conflict was turning in favour of his forces.

Whether this latest change in fortunes signals an approaching end to the wider civil war is difficult to say. It would be rash to predict that Maaloula will soon regain its reputation as being a quiet corner of Syria, where pilgrims can walk the streets of a town rooted in the earliest days of Christianity.

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