Rebels clash with Syrian government forces
Rebels clash with Syrian government forces AFP photo

Syrian rebels, including jihadist groups, captured the historic Christian town of Maalula north of Damascus on Monday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP.

Rebels assaulted the town by rolling explosive-filled tires down the hills onto regime forces and were able to reach the city center after three days of intense fighting, with clashes still raging in the surrounding areas, reported the organization. The town is considered a symbol of the ancient Christian presence in Syria.

The fighting came as the regime has been battling to gain control of a string of nearby towns and villages along the strategic Damascus-Homs highway north of the capital.

The Observatory told AFP that several groups, including the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, had taken part in the capture of the town.

The rebels abducted 12 Syrian and Lebanese Orthodox nuns from their convent after moving into the town, Vatican Radio reported.

Syrian state news agency SANA had earlier said the rebels had entered the Mar Takla convent, in the middle of the city, which had previously been controlled by the army.

The convent is home to some 40 nuns and orphans, some of the few residents of the town who remained after rebels first entered in September, prompting fierce fighting with the army.

Jihadist rebel groups have carried out atrocities throughout the civil war, including publicly beheading a Catholic priest in Idlib in July. The priest was executed because he was accused of collaborating with President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime.

In Aleppo, several Islamist groups split off from the Western-backed Syrian National Council and declared the region to be an independent Islamist state. The jihadists in Aleppo have set up a court based on Sharia (Islamic law) which is authorized to issue execution orders for serious offenses.

Rebels, however, are not the only ones to have carried out atrocities. Assad’s troops have also carried out war crimes and on Monday, for the first time, the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that these war crimes were authorized "at the highest level," including by Assad himself.

It is the first time Navi Pillay has directly accused Assad of crimes against humanity, and could pave the way to an international prosecution - although with western states and Russia pinning their hopes on an upcoming "peace conference" in Geneva, that seems an unlikely prospect.

Pillay made the statements based on the findings of a special inquiry into abuses by both sides in the Syrian civil war, and added that "the scale and viciousness of the abuses being perpetrated by elements on both sides almost defies belief."