Terrified Christians claim Syrian rebels ordered them to convert to Islam on pain of death when they ‘liberated’ their ancient village.
Opposition forces, including fighters linked to Al Qaeda, gained temporary control of the Christian village of Maaloula after fighting with regime forces.
The reports have reignited fears about western support for the rebel groups, which are increasingly being infiltrated by Islamic extremists.
One Maaloula resident said the rebels, many of whom had beards and shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is great), attacked Christian homes and churches shortly after moving into the village.
‘They shot and killed people. I heard gunshots and then I saw three bodies lying in the middle of a street in the old quarters of the village. Where is President Obama to see what has befallen us?’
Another Christian resident said: ‘I saw the militants grabbing five villagers and threatening them and saying, “Either you convert to Islam, or you will be beheaded”.’
Another said one church had been torched, and gunmen stormed into two other churches and robbed them.
The beautiful mountain village, 25 miles from Damascus, is one of the few places in the world where residents still use the ancient language of Aramaic, which was spoken by Jesus and his disciples.
It has become a key strategic battleground in the Syrian civil war because of its proximity to the capital. It was held by President Assad’s regime, but taken at the weekend in a rebel advance spearheaded by the hardline Islamist al Nusra Front.
Villagers said they heard several foreign accents among the rebels, with many feared to be Al Qaeda fighters imported into the conflict. A villager said he heard mainly Tunisian, Libyan, Moroccan and Chechen dialects.
In a video posted online, a rebel commander shouted at the camera: ‘We cleansed Maaloula from all the Assad dogs and all his thugs.’ But Syria’s state news agency claimed the rebels had withdrawn and the regime had regained the village, saying: ‘The army inflicted heavy losses in the ranks of the terrorists.’