Syria army makes 'major advance' in Christian town

DAMASCUS - Syrian government troops on Wednesday beat back Islamist rebels and advanced into Maalula, a historic Christian town near Damascus, state news agency SANA reported.

"Units from our heroic army have made major advances, chasing down terrorists from Al-Nusra Front in the town of Maalula," said an official cited by SANA.

The army "has made it across the town's main square and has reached the Mar Takla convent," said the source, adding that "dozens of terrorists have been wiped out".

The regime has used the word "terrorist" to its opponents ever since the start of an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's rule in March 2011.

The official also said eight rebels had been killed and 20 others wounded in fighting north of Maalula.

A security source earlier told AFP that "the army has not yet retaken Maalula" and that fighting between rebels against troops was "raging on".

The army's advance comes a day after rebels announced they would withdraw from Maalula, but that this was "conditional" on pro-regime forces not taking their place.

"The army and its shabiha (militias) must not enter into the town," a spokesman for the rebels said in an online video statement.

"To ensure no blood is spilt and that the properties of the people of Maalula are kept safe, the Free Syrian Army announces that the town of Maalula will be kept out of the struggle between the FSA and the regime army," he said.

On Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and residents said rebel forces, including jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda, had overrun Maalula.

A nun from Mar Takla convent in Maalula told AFP by telephone that "there were fierce battles (on Tuesday) but the town was not shelled. We and the orphans we take care of are doing well, but we lack fuel".

The town, home to about 5,000 people, is strategically important for rebels, trying to tighten their grip around Damascus and who already have bases circling the capital.

Civilians started fleeing the town nearly a week ago, fearing an imminent escalation.

The National Coordination Body, an opposition group tolerated by the regime, said most fled to the neighbouring Sunni village of Ain al-Tine, as well as to Damascus.

The opposition National Coalition charged that regime artillery shelled Maalula after they lost control, "indifferent to the holy sites within it."

Amateur video distributed by activists showed damage to the facade of a convent and the unidentified cameraman said the regime used "tank and rocket fire" to target it.

Picturesque Maalula, nestled under a large cliff, is considered a symbol of the ancient Christian presence in Syria.

Its people are among the few in the world who speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ.