Middle East

Syria rebels driven from Christian town of Maaloula

Maaloula (file photo) Image copyright AP
Image caption Twelve nuns were seized when rebels attacked the Christian town of Maaloula in December

Syrian soldiers backed by Hezbollah fighters have driven rebels from the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, state media and activists say.

Army units had "restored security and stability" after eliminating a number of "terrorists", a military source told the state-run Sana news agency.

The nearby village of Sarkha had also been retaken, the source added.

Islamist rebels, some of them from the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, took over part of Maaloula in December.

Twelve nuns from the monastery of Deir Mar Takla were taken hostage during the initial fighting.

They were only released last month as part of a prisoner exchange deal brokered by Lebanon and Qatar as the Syrian army prepared to recapture the nearby town of Yabroud, where they were being held.

'Turning point'

Sana reported that army units had to dismantle explosive devices planted in Maaloula by the rebels after recapturing areas they had occupied. Other units were now advancing on Jabaadin, to the south-west, it added.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based activist group, confirmed Maaloula and Sarkha had fallen to government forces.

It comes a day after they captured the nearby town of Rankous.

Maaloula has changed hands at least four times since December as government forces and rebels have launched attacks and counter-attacks, according to the Reuters news agency.

The town has several churches and important monasteries, including Deir Mar Takla, which is visited by many Christians and Muslim pilgrims.

In recent months, soldiers backed by fighters from Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia Islamist movement, have retaken several rebel-held areas in the surrounding Qalamoun Mountains.

They have been trying to secure the motorway leading north from Damascus to the central city of Homs, and to cut off rebel supply routes over the nearby border with Lebanon.

On Sunday, President Bashar al-Assad said he believed that the three-year conflict in Syria was turning in his government's favour, Sana reported.

"This is a turning point in the crisis, both militarily in terms of the army's achievements in the war against terror, and socially in terms of national reconciliation processes and growing awareness of the truth behind the [attacks] targeting the country," he was quoted as saying.

'Rampant' torture

In a separate development on Monday, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, condemned what she said was the "rampant use of torture" in detention facilities across Syria by government forces and some armed opposition groups.

Her office published a paper containing testimony from victims and witnesses that describes how government detainees are "routinely beaten and humiliated for several hours by guards in what has come to be known as the 'reception party'".

Reports of torture by rebel groups appeared to be on the rise since 2013, particularly in the northern province of Raqqa, the paper states. Those most at risk of being mistreated are activists attempting to document human rights violations and individuals perceived to be pro-government.

Meanwhile, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reported that the Syrian government had completed the delivery of the 13th consignment of chemicals to the Mediterranean port of Latakia, where they had been loaded on to cargo ships.

The shipment, as well as another last week, meant that 65.1% of Syria's declared stockpile had now been removed, including 57.4% of the most hazardous "Priority 1" chemicals, a statement said.

OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu described this as "necessary and encouraging", but warned that the frequency and volumes of deliveries would have to increase significantly to meet the end of June deadline for the complete destruction or removal of Syria's entire chemical arsenal.