Militants who overran Syria’s ancient town of Ma’loula last week disparaged Christians as "Crusaders" and forced at least one person to convert to Islam at gunpoint, said residents who fled the town.
Militants who overran Syria's ancient town of Ma'loula last week disparaged Christians as "Crusaders" and forced at least one person to convert to Islam at gunpoint, say residents who fled the town.
Many of Ma'loula people left after a first militant assault knocked out an army checkpoint at the entrance to the strategic town on September 4. Some went to a nearby village and others to Damascus, about 55 kilometers (34 miles) to the south.
One of them, Marie, was still frightened as she spoke of that day.
"They arrived in our town at dawn... and shouted 'We are from the Al-Nusra Front and have come to make lives miserable for the Crusaders," an extremist term for Christians, Marie said in Damascus, where she and hundreds of others attended the burial Tuesday of three Christian fighters who belong to the public committees.
Ma'loula is one of the most renowned Christian towns in Syria, and many of its inhabitants speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
Home to around 5,000 people, it is strategically important for militants.
Security sources stress that the Syrian militants still deploy in Ma'loula, although the militants had announced yesterday that they would withdraw from the town in case the Syrian army did not return to it.
Syrian militants were still positioned in a historic Christian town near Damascus on Wednesday, a day after they announced they were ready to withdraw, a security source told Agence France Presse.
"The army has not yet retaken Ma'loula. The battles are raging on, but (the army) is making progress," the source said.
"The insurgents still hold some positions inside Ma'loula and its surroundings," the source added.
The militant groups announced on Tuesday they would withdraw from Ma'loula, but that this was "conditional" on army troops not taking their place.
The Syrian insurgents had invaded Ma'loula last week, targeting the civilians and the churches before the Syrian army started his campaign to regain the peaceful town.