New clashes at Syrian Christian town: Watchdog

BEIRUT (AFP) - New fighting has broken out between rebels and regime forces on the outskirts of the Christian town of Maalula in Syria, a watchdog said on Saturday.

"There are clashes just inside the town in the western district between Popular Committees (militia) and rebel forces," said Mr Rami Abdul Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

"There are also clashes between soldiers backed by militias and rebel fighters around the area of one of the entrances to Maalula," he said.

The fighting on the outskirts of the town started with an army attack on a group of rebels in a hotel on a nearby hill.

State television, meanwhile, citing a military source, said the army had targeted the hotel and surrounding positions where "terrorists" were stationed, killing several and destroying their weapons.

The Observatory said the army had strengthened its presence at posts evacuated overnight between Thursday and Friday by the rebels at one entrance to Maalula.

Earlier this week, the opposition Syrian National Coalition said members of the Free Syrian Army had withdrawn from Maalula, which is north of Damascus.

"Free Syrian Army (FSA) units on Wednesday destroyed posts at Maalula and Jabadine held by the army on the Damascus-Homs road after fierce clashes with President Bashar al-Assad's forces and auxiliaries," the Coalition said.

"The FSA was stationed for several hours in the vicinity, but did not attack any church or convent," a statement added.

The statement came after the Observatory said on Wednesday that said jihadist Al-Nusra Front fighters had seized a military post at Maalula after a suicide attack.

Maalula is a symbol of the Christian presence in Syria, and many of its inhabitants speak Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ that only small, scattered communities around the world still use today.

Elsewhere in Syria, the Observatory said on Saturday 14 rebels and two civilians were killed in regime shelling of the Kiswa and Maqbaliya, two areas south of Damascus.

The group also reported bombardments in Zamalka, east of Damascus, as well as Daraya and Moadamiyat al-Sham in the southern outskirts of the capital.