- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 19, 2013

Al-Qaeda-linked Syrian rebels continue to haunt the predominantly Christian town of Maaloula as regime fighters struggle to regain power there.

Maaloula, about 35 miles northeast of Damascus, the capital, is nestled under a large cliff, the summit of which is controlled by the rebels. “Invisible” snipers continue to pepper the residents below.

“We never see them, but we hear the shots fired by their Dragunovs,” the Russians’ favorite sniper rifle, said a soldier as he hid behind a wall, Agence France-Presse reported.

A sniper opened fire on an AFP photographer, missing him by only a few yards. The photographer had to lie on the ground behind a wall until a loyalist fighter opened fire on the rebel, allowing the journalist to escape.

“It’s like this every day. We can only move without fear of sniping during the evenings,” the regime soldier said.

Maaloula is strategically valuable to the rebels, who are trying to tighten their grip on the capital.

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The army has “reclaimed most of the town, but the terrorists use their snipers to stop us from bringing it totally under control,” said a colonel who leads the loyalists’ operations in the historic town, according to AFP. “We are continuing to make slow progress. But it is very difficult because we cannot bombard it, there are historic treasures.”

While the majority of the towns winter residents are Muslim, the town is majority Christian in summer, AFP reported.

The Washington Times reported last week that al-Qaeda-linked Syrian rebels in Maaloula had forced at least one person to convert to Islam at gunpoint and executed another one after he refused

“They arrived in our town at dawn on Wednesday and shouted, ‘We are from the Al-Nusra Front and have come to make lives miserable for the Crusaders,’” an Islamist term for Christians, a woman, who identified herself as Marie, told AFP in Damascus.

A woman named Rasha told AFP that rebel fighters had slain her fiance, Atef, after he refused to convert to Islam.

“I rang [Atef’s] mobile phone and one of them answered,” she said.

“Good morning, Rash rush,” the voice said, using her nickname. “We are from the Free Syrian Army. Do you know your fiance was a member of the shabiha (pro-regime militia) who was carrying weapons, and we have slit his throat.”

The man told Rasha her fiance had been given the choice to convert to Islam or die.

“Jesus didn’t come to save him,” he taunted.

• Jessica Chasmar can be reached at jchasmar@washingtontimes.com.

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