BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian government sent reinforcements, including tanks and armored personnel carriers, to a predominantly Christian village north of Damascus where rebels have battled regime troops this week, a monitoring group said Friday.
Opposition fighters led by an al-Qaida-linked rebel faction attacked the ancient mountainside sanctuary of Maaloula on Wednesday, and briefly entered the village a day later before pulling out in the evening. The assault has spotlighted fears among Syria's religious minorities about the prominent role of Islamic extremists in the rebel ranks fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad's regime.
The government forces sent to Maaloula have taken up positions outside the village, which is still under the control of local pro-regime militias, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. He added that there were skirmishes Friday around the village, home to two of the oldest surviving monasteries in Syria — Mar Sarkis and Mar Takla.
The assault is being spearheaded by Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the most effective rebel factions and a group the U.S. has deemed a terrorist organization. The group includes Syrians as well as foreign fighters from across the Muslim world.
Rebels from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army also fought regime soldiers around the Christian village, according to the opposition coalition. FSA fighters "destroyed two regime checkpoints in Maaloula" and battled Assad's troops near the village's main entrance for two days before withdrawing from the area Thursday, the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition said in a statement.
The Syrian government has tried to emphasize the role of foreigners fighting on the rebel side in the civil war as part of its narrative that the Assad regime is battling a foreign-backed conspiracy.
In that vein, Syrian state TV said Friday the government is offering 500,000 Syrian pounds ($2,800) for turning in a foreign fighter, and 200,000 pounds ($1,150) for information about their whereabouts or assistance in their capture.
Civilians have paid the highest price in the conflict that has killed more than 100,000, displaced more than 4 million within Syria and forced another 2 million to seek shelter in neighboring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.
"It's a desperate situation, because behind these huge statistics lies a tragedy for families, for children for women and for men," U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said in an interview with The Associated Press in Beirut after two days in Syria.
"We worry a lot about those areas where people have effectively been under siege for six, seven, eight months," Amos said, adding that besieging entire neighborhoods and towns has become part of a military tactic by the warring sides.
"And when that happens, nothing is able to go in or out," Amos said. "This is a huge and massive problem, because it's not just about food, it's also about people who are injured or wounded and need urgent help, it's the people who on a regular basis need medical supplies."