The coffin of a Christian Syrian killed in Maalula is carried during a funeral march in Damascus on September 10, 2013
The coffin of one of the three Christian Syrians killed in the ancient town of Maalula is carried during a funeral march in the capital Damascus on September 10, 2013. © Anwar Amro - AFP
The coffin of a Christian Syrian killed in Maalula is carried during a funeral march in Damascus on September 10, 2013
Last updated: September 10, 2013

Syria rebels announce withdrawal from Christian town

Syrian rebel fighters announced on Tuesday their withdrawal from the historic Christian town of Maalula near Damascus, two days after they took control of it.

"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," a rebel spokesman said in a video posted online.

The spokesman for the Qalamun Liberation Front, which groups together a collection of anti-regime forces in the Qalamun area near Damascus, also said the withdrawal was "conditional."

"The army and its shabiha (militias) must not enter into the town," said the spokesman, whose name was not given in the video.

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

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

The Britain-based Observatory said Al-Nusra Front, which has pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, was among the forces that had taken control of the town.

Battalions affiliated with the Western-backed FSA had also entered Maalula, he said.

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

The exodus has left Maalula virtually empty, residents say.

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

Many of its inhabitants speak Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ that only small, scattered communities around the world still use.

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