Islamist fighters who captured a Christian village north of Damascus have moved 12 nuns to a nearby town in what may have been a kidnapping, the Vatican’s ambassador to Syria said on Tuesday.
The militants took the ancient quarter of Maaloula on Monday after heavy fighting with government forces. Syrian state media said they were holding the nuns captive in the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Thecla.
Ambassador Mario Zenari told AFP that 12 Syrian and Lebanese Orthodox nuns had been abducted by rebels. All communications with the town have been cut since Monday, an AFP correspondent in Damascus said.
But pro-rebel sources cited by Reuters said the nuns were safe and that the real threat to them came from what they described as random Syrian army bombardment of Maaloula.
Zenari said that the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate had told him armed men had entered the monastery on Monday afternoon and believed that they had taken the nuns from Maaloula to Yabroud, about 20 kilometers (13 miles) to the north.
“They forced the sisters to evacuate and to follow them towards Yabroud. At this moment we cannot say if this is a kidnapping or an evacuation,” he told Reuters by telephone from Damascus.
A military source told Syrian daily Al-Watan that government reinforcements were headed to Maaloula.
The fighting, which pits al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front fighters and other rebels against government forces, is part of a wider struggle for control of the Damascus-Homs highway in central Syria.
An official at the Greek Patriarchate confirmed that he believed the nuns were taken to Yabroud, but gave no details.
Syrian state television said Christians had held a service in Damascus on Monday to protest against the capture of the nuns and the kidnapping of two bishops near Aleppo in April.
The village was the scene of heavy fighting in September, when it changed hands four times in a series of attacks and counter-assaults by rebels and government forces.
Zenari said the nuns were among the last residents left in Maaloula after most fled south for relative safety in Damascus.