The Syrian army has recaptured Christian areas in the city of Aleppo after heavy fighting with rebels, leaving streets desolated and deserted apart from local youths on patrol, residents said on Thursday.
"We have had the worst two days of our lives," Sonia, the wife of a wealthy businessman in the northern city which is also Syria's commercial capital, told AFP by telephone.
"If our house weren't built like a fortress, we'd all be dead. The entrance is very badly damaged. We couldn't sleep all night," said the resident of Telal, which the army seized on Wednesday along with Jdeide and Sulamaniyeh.
Aleppo residents reported heavy exchanges in the heart of the city during the army's offensive to recapture the three neighbourhoods seized by the rebels at the weekend.
Of the three Christian quarters in the historic Old City of Aleppo, Jdeide and Telal were once frequented by tourists for their restaurants and handicraft shops.
The rebel Free Syrian Army had also seized the nearby neighbourhood of Sulamaniyeh, most of whose inhabitants are Armenian Christians and which is home to ancient monasteries and a Melkite Greek Catholic cathedral.
The bishop of the cathedral on Farhat Square, left pockmarked by the fighting, himself had to beat a hasty retreat before the rebels moved in because of his pro-regime comments, another resident told AFP.
"The battles on Monday and Tuesday were very violent, and they lasted for many long hours before the army managed to expel the rebels," said a local who declined to be named. He said dozens of rebels were rounded up.
"Hundreds of residents of the districts of Telal and Sulamaniyeh took to the streets to celebrate and express their support for the army," he added.
"The army had to retake these neighbourhoods because many homes have tunnels leading to the nearby citadel."
The state news agency SANA said civil defence and public services were "sent back immediately to carry out the necessary repairs and restore normal life to the neighbourhoods after they were cleansed of terrorists."
Locals have set up "popular committees" to prevent their return, according to residents and a security source.
"It's not very organised but there are youths especially in the Armenian districts protecting buildings against any new incursions. Some of them are armed and they can call on the army at any time to intervene," a witness said.
After more than a month of fighting, the battle for Aleppo continued with fierce clashes and bombardment in other neighbourhoods of the city on Thursday, militants and residents said.
While much of the Sunni Muslim districts of Aleppo support the anti-regime revolt in Syria, Christian communities in the heart of Aleppo support President Bashar al-Assad for fear of an Islamist takeover of the country.
Critics within the Christian minority have warned of the price to pay for such support if the nominally secular regime falls.
According to researcher Fabrice Balanche, Aleppo has a population of 2.7 million people, of whom 85 percent are Sunnis and 10 percent Christians, half of them Armenians and the rest Assyrians, Greek Catholics and Maronites.