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Syria's Assad pays Easter visit to old Christian town

Published on Apr 21, 2014 6:30 AM

MAALULA (AFP) - Syria's President Bashar al-Assad paid an Easter Sunday, Syria, April 20, 2014, visit to a historic Christian town newly recaptured from jihadist-backed rebels, as opposition fighters counter-attacked his forces in a key battleground city.

The surprise visit to Maalula, just north of Damascus, came as Pope Francis said in his Easter message that it was time for warring parties to "boldly negotiate" peace in Syria after three years of conflict estimated to have killed 150,000 people.

Mr Assad's regime has sought to portray itself as the protector of religious minorities from foreign-backed extremists, a notion his opponents dismiss as part of a divide-and-rule strategy also aimed at deterring Western support for rebels.

State television showed Mr Assad, who has rarely appeared in public during the conflict, visiting Maalula's Saint Sergius and Bacchus monastery damaged by "terrorists" - his regime's term for its armed opponents.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (in light coloured suit) looking at the damaged interior of a monastery in the ancient Christian town of Maalula which his troops recently recaptured from rebels on April 20, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP/SANA
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