BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government troops pounded a rebel stronghold near the Lebanese border with airstrikes and artillery on Tuesday, activists said, hitting a town in the mountainous region where they believe opposition fighters are holding a group of nuns.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said president Bashar Assad's forces struck Yabroud, the last big rebel stronghold in the Qalamoun area, as part of a crushing offensive the army launched last month to cut off rebels' supply routes from Lebanon. The fighting has forced thousands of Syrians to flee across the border.
Yabroud has been under rebel control since early last year and has served as a major smuggling hub for opposition fighters.
Activists, church and government officials believe opposition fighters took twelve nuns to Yabroud after seizing them eight days ago from a nearby Greek Orthodox convent.
Six of the nuns denied they had been kidnapped in a video broadcast on Doha-based Al-Jazeera on Friday, saying they were being held in a safe place. Their disappearance, however, has increased concerns about the treatment of Christians by hard-liners in the rebel ranks, particularly as more Christian villages are engulfed in fighting that has pitted mostly Sunni Muslim rebels against an Assad government dominated by Alawites, a sect of Shiite Islam.
In the north on Tuesday, fighters belonging to rival Islamic rebel groups battled each other, killing at least 12, the Observatory said.
Members of the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and another Islamic group clashed in the town of Maskaneh in the northern Aleppo province. The fighting started in the morning after ISIL members detained a man to try him in an Islamic court they set up after driving Assad's forces from the area, the Observatory said. It obtains its information from activists on the ground.
Over the past year, the ISIL has become one of the most influential groups on the opposition's side in the country's nearly three-year-old conflict. The infighting has weakening the battle to oust Assad.
Syrian conflict started in March 2011 as a largely peaceful uprising against his rule. It gradually turned into a civil war in which more than 120,000 people have been killed, activists say. The United Nations put the death toll at 100,000 people in July and has not updated the figure since then.