Syrian rebels led by al-Qa'ida-linked fighters seized control of a predominantly Christian village northeast of Damascus, sweeping into the mountainside sanctuary in heavy fighting overnight and forcing hundreds of residents to flee, activists and locals said.
The battle over Maaloula, an ancient village that is home to two of the oldest surviving monasteries in Syria, has thrown a spotlight on the deep-seated fears that many of Syria's religious minorities harbour about the growing role of Islamic extremists on the rebel side in the civil war against President Bashar Assad's regime.
The prominence of al-Qa'ida-linked fighters has factored into the reluctance of Western powers to provide direct military support to the rebels.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the assault was led by Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qa'ida-affiliated group, as well as by the Qalamon Liberation Front.
Syria's state news agency provided a dramatically different account of the battle. State-run TV reported that all churches in Maaloula were now 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 attacked Christian homes and churches.
"They shot and killed people," he added.