BEIRUT — The Syrian government sent reinforcements, including tanks and armored personnel carriers, to a predominantly Christian village north of Damascus where rebels have battled regime troops this week, a monitoring group said Friday.
Opposition fighters led by an Al Qaeda-linked rebel faction attacked the ancient mountainside sanctuary of Maaloula on Wednesday and briefly entered the village a day later before pulling out in the evening. The assault has spotlighted fears among Syria’s religious minorities about the prominent role of Islamic extremists in the rebel ranks fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad’s regime.
The government forces sent to Maaloula have taken up positions outside the village, which is still under the control of local pro-regime militias, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. He added that there were skirmishes Friday around the village, home to two of the oldest surviving monasteries in Syria — Mar Sarkis and Mar Takla.
The assault is being spearheaded by Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the most effective rebel factions and a group the United States has deemed a terrorist organization. The group includes Syrians as well as foreign fighters from across the Muslim world.
Rebels from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army also fought regime soldiers around the Christian village, according to the opposition coalition. Free Syrian Army fighters ‘‘destroyed two regime checkpoints in Maaloula’’ and battled Assad’s troops near the village’s main entrance for two days before withdrawing from the area Thursday, the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition said in a prepared statement.
The Syrian government has tried to emphasize the role of foreigners fighting on the rebel side in the civil war as part of its narrative that the Assad regime is battling a foreign-backed conspiracy.
In that vein, Syrian state TV said Friday that the government is offering $2,800 for turning in a foreign fighter, and $1,150 for information about their whereabouts or assistance in their capture.
Civilians have paid the highest price in the conflict that has killed an estimated 100,000 people, displaced more than 4 million within Syria, and forced another 2 million to seek shelter in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.
The prospect of a US-led strike against Syria has raised concerns of potential retaliation from the Assad regime or its allies. The State Department has ordered nonessential US diplomats to leave Lebanon over security concerns and has urged private American citizens to depart as well.
The Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah, an Assad ally that has sent fighters into Syria, is based in Lebanon.
Russia’s Interfax news agency reported that Moscow had three naval ships moving toward Syria in the eastern Mediterranean and another en route from the Black Sea. The agency said two amphibious landing crafts and a reconnaissance ship have passed through the Dardanelles, while another landing vessel had left the Black Sea for the eastern Mediterranean with ‘‘special cargo.’’
Kremlin Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov said Thursday that Russia is boosting its naval presence primarily to organize a possible evacuation of Russians from Syria.