Assault on Maaloula

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Maaloula is an ancient Christian mountain town, located around 60 kilometers north-east of Damascus, famous for its enclave of people who speak Aramaic, the language Jesus is said to have spoken.


Maaloula in December 2008

First Assault

On September 4th 2013, Al-Nusra affiliated militants assaulted the town. According to loyalist sources, the attack started with a Jordanian suicide bomber driving a reinforced Mercedes truck full of explosives towards an army checkpoint at the northern entrance of the city. The huge explosion killed 13 soldiers. The Jordanian was part of a "Brigade of the Immigrants" group consisting mostly of Chechen fighters and coming from the Deir Al-Zour area to Maaloula (through the desert), entering the town after chaos was created.[1]

The source reports that after "the usual Chechen-style slaughter-orgy" by the group and following SAA reinforcements, the army was mostly in control again by the evening of Thursday, September 5th. A team of Russia Today visiting the town two days later, though, came into crossfire of ongoing fights between the Army and Islamists.[2]

After many announcements of the town being "almost" without militant presence (see article collection below), at one point likely in October security was finally restored but it is unclear how many residents came back to town.

Second Assault and Kidnapped Nuns

While a major SAA operation up in the mountains was under way, some militants were able to break the alleged siege there and return to Maaloula in late November, rolling tires filled with explosives from the cliffs into city center and again taking hostages.[3]

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on its Facebook page December 4 that this time, the nuns of the city's monastery - a dozen in number as it later turned out - were kidnapped by the rebels of Jabhat al-Nusra:

Activists from al-Qalamoun of Reef Dimashq reported to the SOHR that the Martaqla monastery's sisters are in the Yabroud city after they were abducted from the Ma'loula town and transported through the al-Sarkha area of Yabroud city. The activists confirmed that the sisters are with the al-Nusra front and have not been subject to any physical harm so far.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights demands that the sisters be immediately handed to the ICRC since it is most capable of securing a safe haven for them and ensuring their safety and well-being. [4]

A group of Lebanese Maronite bishops joined the plea for the immediate release of the nuns,[5] but an opposition group called Free Qalamoun announced that the nuns had been kidnapped and were safe so far, but would "not be released until several demands have been implemented."[6]

On December 20, NPR aired a report where an Islamist rebel leader, "Abu Majid," again claimed the nuns voluntarily left with rebels for their own safety, after the government started trying to blow up the church. His account is said to be confirmed by church officials and by the not-captive mother Superior, who, along with the rest, still have not left the Christian-owned villa rebels put them in after the alleged rescue. [7] (see talk page: Abu Majid's Story for more details)


Maaloula in December 2013

In late December, more than one large group trying to reinforce the militants was successfully ambushed by the SAA, killing hundreds, while the empty town including the hills remain in "rebel" hands as videos (see below) show.

Nuns released

On March 9, 2014, the nuns were finally released after several rounds of negotiations and at least one change of location due to SAA forces approaching Yabroud. There are several versions about the details of the release, with SANA making it seem like Assad played the mayor role[8] and western media meandering between parroting the "rebel" narrative of "protecting" the nuns and obfuscating the events.[9] A very detailed and rather plausible seeming report comes from local daily As-Safir, translated to English by Lebanese Al Manar. According to this, the final release came after the Syrian Government repeatedly refused to give in to demands to release huge numbers of prisoners, and negotiations between the higher-ups of Al Nusra and envoys from Qatar finally led to a deal where Qatar payed 16 million dollars for immediate release of the nuns. The head of the original kidnapper group, Mithqal Hamama, had been killed in an SAA ambush a couple of days earlier which sped up the negotiating process.[10]

Maaloula retaken

Maaloula mary.jpg

On April 14, 2014, official sources announced that the Syrian Arab Army had completely retaken Maaloula as part of their Qalamoun offensive.[11] Pictures of the Christian sites show massive damage from purposeful destruction.[12]

The general remained unsafe, however. The following day, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported:

Rebel sniper targeted Al-Manar TV staff which was covering the taking over of Ma'loula by Hezbollah and regime forces , Al-Manar is a Lebanese channel belongs to Hezbollah, the reporter Hamza Hajj Hassan, the photographer Mohammad Mentach and his assistant Halem Alouh, were killed while others were seriously injured, 4 regular soldiers killed when they were trying to pull back Al-Manar staff from the area. [13]

In early June 2015, a replacement for the destroyed, famous Virgin Mary statue was delivered and erected on the hill overseeing Maaloula.[14]

External links

Articles

The Islamists warned everyone present to convert to Islam. Sarkis answered clearly: "I am a Christian and if you want to kill me because I am a Christian, do it". The young man together with the other two were killed cold bloodedly. The woman was injured and was saved by a miracle, later taken to hospital in Damascus.
A top-ranking Syrian army officer told Itar-Tass that the government forces on Sunday alone had killed from 300 to 400 terrorists. However, judging by the flow of ambulance car rushing for the site of fighting, there are losses among the Syrian army as well. The officer vowed that all the militants would be forced out of the city in a couple of days and journalists would be able to reach the Christian shrines in that city. This week, Russian journalists made three attempts to get to the Monastery of Equal-to-the-Apostles St. Thekla but each time they had to retreat because of militant attacks.
At the beginning of September rebel jihadists from the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front took over the town. Several attempts by government troops to drive them out of the village have so far not succeeded.
"The Mar Takla convent is living through painful days because it is in the middle of the zone where fire is being exchanged, which makes getting supplies difficult and dangerous," the Damascus-based Patriarchate said in a statement. "The generator has gone out because of the fighting, halting the supply of water to the convent and threatening the lives of those inside," the statement added. It issued an "urgent appeal" to humanitarian groups to "ensure the necessary supplies to residents of the convent, nuns and orphans who number close 40 people."
A Syrian Second Lieutenant called Talal told me that the caves had now been surrounded and that the Nusra snipers would run out of supplies. But if this is true – given the number of bullets cracking down the streets during my visit – the insurgents still seem to have plenty of ammunition.
Negotiations are underway between mediators in Lebanon and Syria to secure the release of the 12 kidnapped nuns in addition to four young women from the orphanage that the nuns ran. [...] the Syrian army conducts air strikes against militants in Maaloula from time to time, but so far, it doesn’t seem to be undertaking any serious effort to retake the town.
[Syrian Patriarch John] Yazigi on Saturday said he spoke with the nuns over the phone earlier this week and that they appeared to be in good in health. "They are believed to be at a residence in Yabroud, and they are well," the cleric was quoted as saying by Lebanon's National News Agency from Beirut's international airport ahead of a visit to Moscow. "Negotiations are still ongoing," he added.
This "authorless" article has a lot of partly rather far-fetched sounding details about the negotiations, based on "informed sources". According to this, the nuns are in a palace in Yabroud whose owner George Haswani, a local businessman with good ties to Assad, has invited the kidnapper group to stay there for the comfort of the nuns.
Allegedly the contact to the kidnappers has been lost and it's suspected that the nuns were moved from Yabroud up into the mountains. This comes while the SAA is closing in on Yabroud and could be strategic disinformation. According to the article, the kidnappers leader is one Abu Malek al-Kuwaiti.

Videos

References

  1. FIRST POST - SEPTEMBER 6, 2013, Syrian Perspective blog, September 6, 2013
  2. 'Bullets flew around us': RT crew in crossfire of Syrian army vs extremists, RT, September 8, 2013
  3. Syrian rebels roll exploding tires into Maaloula army outposts, Al Akhbar, December 2, 2013
  4. Facebook post Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, December 4, 2013 at 6:38 PM GMT
  5. Bishops, mufti condemn ‘kidnapping’ of nuns, orphans from Syrian town, Daily Star, December 5, 2013
  6. In Syria, Rebel Group Demands Hostage Swap For Abducted Nuns, Huffington Post, December 6, 2013
  7. Nuns Were Led To Safety, Not Seized, In SyriaBy Deborah Amos, National Public Radio, December 20, 201311:17 AM
  8. Released nuns arrive in Damascus amid popular and religious reception, SANA, March 10, 2014 (mirrored)
  9. Syrian Nuns Freed - Media Is Concealing the Villains, Moon of Alabama, March 10, 2014
  10. This Is How Maloula Nuns Regained Freedom.. in Details, As-Safir/Al-Manar, March 10, 2014
  11. Syrian forces retake Maaloula: official, AFP, April 14, 2014
  12. The Destruction of Maaloula, Syrian Perspective, April 17, 2014
  13. Final death toll for Monday 14/04/2014, approximately 269 people killed in Syria Facebook post by Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, April 15, 2014
  14. Ibrahim Joudeh, Leith Fadel on twitter