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Syrian rebels capture village that has Christian majority

Al Qaeda-linked fighters reported looting churches

A undated handout from the Syrian news agency SANA showed a church in Maaloula, northeast of Damascus.

European Pressphoto Agency

A undated handout from the Syrian news agency SANA showed a church in Maaloula, northeast of Damascus.

AMMAN, Jordan — Syrian rebels led by Al Qaeda-linked fighters seized control of a predominantly Christian village northeast of Damascus, sweeping into the mountainside sanctuary in fighting overnight and forcing hundreds to flee, activists and locals said Sunday.

The battle over Maaloula, home to two of the oldest surviving monasteries in Syria, has thrown a spotlight on fears that many of Syria’s religious minorities harbor about Islamist extremists on the rebel side in the civil war against President Bashar Assad’s regime.

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The prominence of Al Qaeda-linked fighters has factored into the reluctance of Western powers to provide direct military support to the rebels.

The presence of Islamist radicals in the ranks of the opposition has also figured in the debate underway in Congress over whether to launch military strikes against Syria in retaliation for an alleged chemical weapons attack last month.

The prospect that the civil war in Syria could expand into a regional conflict has been a worry for several of its neighbors, including Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.

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After days of clashes in and around Maaloula, the Syrian rebels captured the village after fierce fighting late Saturday, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group.

Syria’s state news agency provided a different account of the battle, saying the military reported ‘‘progress’’ in its offensive in Maaloula.

State-run TV reported that all churches in Maaloula were safe and the army was chasing gunmen in the western hills.

But residents of Maaloula reached by telephone described fierce battles in the streets that forced them and other locals to flee as opposition fighters flooded the village.

One resident said the rebels — many of them wearing beards and shouting, ‘‘God is great!’’ — attacked Christian homes and churches.

Another resident who escaped earlier in the day said Assad’s forces were deployed on the outskirts of the village, while gunmen inside refused to allow anybody in. He said that one of the churches, called Demyanos, had been torched and gunmen stormed into two other churches and robbed them.

A third resident reached by phone said he saw militants forcing some Christian residents to convert to Islam.

The reports could not be independently verified.

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