Syria rebels withdraw from ancient Christian town of Maaloula
Syrian rebels have withdrawn after briefly entering an ancient Christian town north of Damascus, the main opposition alliance has said.
Free Syrian Army (FSA) units captured military positions outside Maaloula after heavy clashes with government forces and militiamen on Thursday.
The National Coalition said they were in the vicinity for several hours, "but did not attack any church or convent".
The fighting highlighted the delicate position of Syria's Christian minority.
When the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad erupted in March 2011, many Christians were cautious and tried to avoid taking sides.
However, as the crackdown by security forces intensified and opposition supporters took up arms, they were gradually drawn into the conflict.
Many fear that if the secular government is overthrown they will be targeted by Sunni jihadist rebels calling for the establishment of an Islamic state and that Christian communities will be destroyed, as many were in Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003.
Among the rebels who clashed with soldiers in Maaloula and the local Popular Committee, set up to defend the town, on Thursday were members of the al-Nusra Front, a group allied to al-Qaeda, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The UK-based activist group said al-Nusra fighters seized a military checkpoint outside Maaloula, about 55km (34 miles) north of Damascus, after a suicide car bomb attack.
Most residents fled when the fighting erupted. One woman said the rebels fired shells and anti-aircraft guns, and that some rounds had hit the centre of the town.
"For months the rebels have been around Maaloula but there has been a sort of an understanding with the residents that they would not enter," Samia Elias, a resident who stayed in Maaloula during the fighting, told the Reuters news agency.
"To be fair, they do not seem to have touched churches or homes."
Maaloula has several churches and important monasteries, including Deir Mar Takla, which is visited by many Christians and Muslim pilgrims.
Inscriptions found in some of the caves in the mountainside on which the town sits confirm it as one of the earliest centres of Christianity in the world, and some residents can still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
Later on Thursday, government warplanes launched three air strikes on the checkpoint held by the rebels.
Syria's Sana state news agency meanwhile reported that an army unit "eliminated members of a terrorist group belonging to the al-Nusra Front" north-east of Maaloula and "destroyed the tools they use in their crimes".
Rebel commander Abu Khaled, from the Baba Amr Revolutionaries Brigade, told Reuters: "We never had any intention of staying."
Overnight, the National Coalition issued a statement confirming that FSA units had withdrawn after destroying army posts at Maaloula.
The opposition alliance also stressed its "commitment to protect all Syrians, no matter what their religion, race, confession or political belief, and its constant concern to preserve Syria's human and religious heritage by every means possible".