BEIRUT — Syrian government forces battled Tuesday with al-Qaida-linked rebels trying to capture an ancient Christian town north of Damascus, activists and the state media said.
The Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, appears to have targeted Sadad because of its strategic location near the main highway north of Damascus, rather than because it is Christian. But hard-liners among the rebels are hostile to Syria's Christian minority, who tend to support the government of President Bashar Assad, and other al-Qaida-linked fighters have damaged and desecrated churches in areas they have seized.
The assault on Sadad, some 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of Damascus, began at dawn Monday, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Local police fought back the initial assault and were reinforced by the army.
The rebel attack seemed to target a chief hospital in the town, said the Observatory, which monitors fighting through a network of activists on the ground. He said that there was also fighting in the nearby town of Muhin and that the Nusra Front controlled the main road leading to Damascus.
In September, rebels including Nusra Front members briefly captured the Christian town of Maaloula, northeast of Damascus. Maaloula is an ancient village that is home to two of the oldest surviving monasteries in Syria. Troops recaptured most of the town days after the rebels took it.