x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Syrian rebels accused of kidnapping nuns

Claims came as Syria’s state TV reported that a suicide attacker set off his explosive vest in central Damascus, killing four and wounding 17 others.

DAMASCUS // A Syrian mother superior accused opposition fighters of abducting 12 nuns from a predominantly Christian village near Damascus yesterday while a suicide bomber killed four people in the capital.

The mother superior at Saidnaya Convent, Febronia Nabhan, said the nuns and three other women were taken the day before from the predominantly Christian village of Maalula to the nearby rebel-held town of Yabroud, which also has a large Christian population.

Her comments could not be independently confirmed. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists around the country, said that “the fate of nuns at the Mar Takla Convent in Maalula is unknown”. It added there were conflicting reports on whether they were taken to a nearby area or not.

The Observatory said it received information late on Monday saying that the nuns “are still alive”. It gave no further details.

Sister Febronia said that the Maalula convent’s mother superior, Pelagia Sayaf, called her late on Monday from Yabroud and said they were all “fine and safe.”

Meanwhile, Syria’s state TV reported that a suicide attacker set off his explosive vest in central Damascus, killing four and wounding 17 others. It gave no further details about the blast in the central Jisr Abyad neighbourhood and what the target was.

Such blasts in Damascus are not uncommon and have killed scores of people in the city.

Syrian rebels captured large parts of Maalula, some 60 kilometres north-east of the capital, on Monday after three days of fighting. Activists say the rebels who stormed the town included members of the Jabhat Al Nusra, a group affiliated to Al Qaeda.

Syria’s minorities, including Christians, have mostly sided with President Bashar Al Assad or remained neutral, fearing for their fate if the rebels, in whose ranks Islamist extremists are increasingly prominent, come to power. Christians have accused radicals among the rebels of abusing residents and vandalising churches after taking Christian towns.

The Syrian foreign ministry urged the international community to condemn the rebel attack on Maalula. In two letters sent to the heads of the UN Security Council and the UN Secretary-General late on Monday, the ministry said: “Syria is facing a barbarian war launched by extremist ... gangs targeting its present and future.”

It said “terrorists” broke into Mar Takla Convent and held Sister Pelagia and a number of nuns “as hostages and sabotaged churches and houses”.

The ministry urged the UN Security Council to condemn these terrorist acts in “the strongest terms” and exert pressure on the countries supporting these groups to stop providing them with logistical and financial support.

The state news agency Sana had reported on Monday that six nuns, including Sayaf, were trapped in a convent in Maalula.

In September, rebels seized parts of Maalula only to be driven out within a few days by government forces.

Maalula was a major tourist attraction before the conflict began in March 2011. Some of its residents still speak a version of Aramaic, a biblical language.

Associated Press